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 biblical writers.
What Is Justification
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.
In his book on Christian Living, Dr. Charles Stanley explains the meaning of justification, as used in Romans 5:1. He explains, "The Greek verb tense used in this verse means a once-and-for-all transaction. We have been justified - that is, declared not guilty once and for all. The word justify is not only a theological term, but it is a judicial or legal term as well. As far back as the book of Genesis, the question was asked, "Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?" (Genesis 18:25, NASB). If we accept the Lord Jesus Christ who died n our place, we are justified, at peace, spared from the penalty." (Charles Stanley's Handbook for Christian Living, p. 196. © 1996 by Charles Stanley)
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 justification 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 in 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, and paint pictures. Read Edwards for examples of 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, and 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.
Josh Moody is a 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 four children. He can be followed through his blog and on twitter @godcenteredlife.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/mbolina
This article is part of our Christian Terms catalog, exploring words and phrases of Christian theology and history. Here are some of our most popular articles covering Christian terms to help your journey of knowledge and faith: