What Is Justification? How Do We Justify by Faith?

Justification is not just a message of the Protestant Reformation. It is a foundationally Christian message about how we are saved by Jesus.
Josh Moody
What Is Justification? How Do We Justify by Faith?

What is Justification?

As defined in the Baker's Biblical Dictionary, Justification is the declaring of a person to be just or righteous. It is a legal term signifying acquittal, a fact that makes it unpalatable to many in our day. We tend to distrust legalism and thus we dismiss anything that savors of a legalistic approach. We should be clear that our hesitation was not shared by the biblical writers. In their day it was axiomatic that a wealthy and important citizen would not be treated in a law court in the same way as an insignificant person. Indeed this was sometimes written into the statutes and, for example, in the ancient Code of Hammurabi it is laid down that if a citizen knocked out the tooth of another citizen his own tooth should be knocked out. But if the victim was a vassal it sufficed to pay a small fine. Nobody expected strict justice in human tribunals but the biblical writers were sure that God is a God of justice. Throughout the Bible justice is a category of fundamental importance.

The Meaning and Importance of Justification

Justification is not just a message of the Protestant Reformation. It is a foundationally Christian message. Much controversy has centered lately on whether the Reformers rightly understood justification. Some say that a ‘new look’ at justification is required by recent New Testament scholarship. Without raking over the coals of that debate, my conviction is that justification is not a Reformation doctrine, but a biblical doctrine.

Here are two reasons why justification matters, and four ways to make it matter:

1.       The Bible teaches it.

Romans 4:5 “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Certainly, justification can be preached incorrectly – that is, without properly emphasizing the fact that the fruit of the Spirit must also come because of justification. (jonathan edwards called this “evangelical obedience.”)

But disagreeing with a thing because it can be misused is like avoiding cars because some people speed. Justification can not only be preached incorrectly, it can also be preached downright poorly – mistaking a formulation of ‘sound’ words for the actual message, or feeling as if you have to communicate certain technical ideas rather than the life and soul of the message. In essence, preaching justification means preaching Jesus, neither more nor less.

Preaching justification means explaining from the Bible how the atonement works so that we understand that we are saved by Jesus, and nothing and no one else. What matters with regard to justification are not technical debates about exactly how it works, but who works: you, me, or Christ? The song of justification is “in christ alone.” 

2.       Experience confirms it.

Our practice is not to be governed by experience, but by our Bibles. However, experience is a useful confirmation of the truth of the Bible which the Bible frequently offers as a teaching tool. In this case, there is plenty of experience that suggests that life and health and power return to churches and ministries once the message of justification is placed firmly and confidently at their heart.

Our churches are not a moral improvement project. Our churches are to be places where gospel hope is offered, and for that to be the case, the foundation for it is a right understanding, grasp, and proclamation of justification. 

Such historical examples as Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar enough perhaps. But we do well to remind ourselves that as Luther read and studied Galatians (his ‘Katharina von Bora’ as he called it), as Wesley heard Luther’s preface to Galatians read (and his “heart was strangely warmed”), and as Edwards preached “justification by faith alone” (and many were converted), there is a template of God using his message of the gospel – unadulterated, unperverted, unashamed – for massive revival. 

In missionary work, cross cultural evangelism, and reaching the religiously nominal, justification has a track record of breaking hard hearts and mending broken hearts. It exalts God, humbles people, and keeps salvation (not culture wars, politics, or any other form of “works”) at the heart of our churches. 

Here are four ways to make it matter:

1.       Don’t tell people.

By that, I mean don’t necessarily use “justification” as a word. Obviously you can – and when you come across passages that use that biblical term, you will need to do so! But the point of preaching justification is to preach Christ, the freedom from guilt and the declaration of righteousness through faith in him, not to check off certain boxes in our theological nomenclature.

Many of the parables that Jesus told are embedded with justification theology, but rarely with explicitly justification terminology.  How could David be “a man after God’s own heart” unless he was justified? If you think that’s a reach, consider Paul’s argument with relation to Abraham: his faith was credited to him as righteousness. How else could Abraham be an example of godliness unless there is a power of justification at work, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly? 

2.       Do show people.

I don’t mean bringing up on stage visual aids or physical show and tell items (though I suppose I have nothing against that in theory; Jesus had a little child sit with them as an illustration, after all). I mean use visual language, tell stories, paint pictures. Read Edwards for examples on how to do this. His preaching is not ‘illustration’ heavy, but his sentences are full of running metaphors. That’s what makes language live, the sight of the sunrise over the horizon of comprehension.

Obviously, justification has a particular law court metaphor: you can use that one. But I don’t think you are limited to it. My understanding of justification is that it is foundational to other metaphors of the atonement. So I can preach friendship metaphors (reconciliation) and rescue metaphors (redemption) because I hold firmly to a justification by faith alone message. In other words, you don’t have to cross every “t” and dot every “i” technically every time you preach justification; what you have to do is give people the meaning and message in a way that our primarily visual thinking can grasp.

I take it that Jesus believed in justification, but I don’t see him using that word often, though he did use it. Instead, I see him living, breathing, acting, and serving with mercy and compassion even to the worst of sinners because there is a declaration of righteousness that he is embodying to the wicked. 

3.       Teach people the proper place of works.

If you don’t tell people that holiness matters, you will be doing a great disservice to their standing before God, to God’s holiness and honor, and to the good of the church. Paul, Jesus, the Bible as a whole insist that holiness is important, that as a Christian I have a responsibility to grow in my holiness, and that without holiness no one will see the Lord.

So you must teach works.  But you must avoid teaching them pharisaically. Works are the fruit, not the foundation, of our standing before God. This does not mean that they are unimportant or less essential. A good tree bears good fruit; a bad tree bad fruit. Assurance of my standing before God does not come about merely from reciting a couple of Bible verses or walking down the aisle and “making a decision.” I have a fear that such thinking has consigned more people unwarily to hell than any other false idea.

I have come across people who have developed an immunity to gospel preaching because they think they are saved – they know it all already – when their lives bear no signs of the fruit of the Spirit. It is no benefit to such people to be soft on their sin. They must be shaken by their failure to keep God’s commandments or to make any true progress in loving God, his people and the world, and therefore driven to their knees to cry mercy before an omnipotent and holy God. In other words, justification cannot be sustained without a parallel emphasis on the importance of practical obedience that results from regeneration.

4.       Preach regeneration.

A key lesson I have learned first from Paul in Galatians, and seen paralleled in Edwards’ work on justification by faith alone, is that justification is not a ‘dry’ doctrine but is to be taught in connection with a strong emphasis upon the primary importance of the work of the Spirit. Those who are allergic to the power of God’s Spirit will not long stay sound about justification. Justification to them will feel like a theory, a fanciful idea, and a dry legal metaphor. But if we study Galatians carefully, we can see that Paul, while defending justification, at the same time also preaches the powerful working of the Spirit. 

This is the parallel doctrine of our ‘position’ in Christ on which Paul insists: that we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. This is the message that after beginning with the Spirit, do we really think we can attain our goal by human effort? This is why at the end of Galatians (not as an add-on or second thought), Paul applies his message to the fruit of the Spirit by which we can put to death the deeds of the flesh.  Regeneration is the essential context in which justification can thrive. 

I have found this to be true time and time again with people who are struggling to understand justification. Stop thinking only about justification and start thinking about the work of the Spirit, our position in Christ, regeneration; in short, other aspects of salvation that connect with this that will bring richness and clarity to our understanding of justification.

What is Justification by Faith?

As transcribed in the video above, Phil Johnson describes 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.

Josh Moody is senior pastor at college church in wheaton (Illinois). He has his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and is an Associate Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University. He has authored several books, including most recently No Other Gospel (Crossway, 2011) and Jonathan Edwards and Justification (Crossway, 2012) Josh and his wife Rochelle have 4 children. He can be followed through his blog and on twitter @godcenteredlife.


Originally published October 10, 2012.