Justification is a biblical term. If you’re interested in the Bible then you will care about justification. Nor is it some throw-away term coined by white tower theologians. It isn’t a dry doctrine removed from the realities of normal life. You should care about it because its practical. It’s the foundation upon which the entire Christian life is built.
So what is justification? The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks exactly that in question 33. It answers, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” God pronounces a legal judgment that acquits and pardons the sinner. It’s based on the perfect work of Christ, and received by faith.
The Meaning of Justification
Justification is an important theme in Galatians 2-3. The apostle Paul argues that if the King of kings judges that someone is “not guilty” it’s anything but legal fiction. It’s reality! In his commentary on Galatians, Phillip Ryken tells a story that’s helpful for understanding how justification is significant. William Herschel was a gifted musician. As a young man in Germany, he joined a military band. Through a turn of events, however, he soon found himself marching into war. He was totally unprepared for the horrors of the battlefield.
During a period of intense fighting, he deserted his unit and fled from the battle. The penalty for desertion was death so he fled Germany. He managed to immigrate to England. There he pursued further studies in music and science. Eventually, he became a famous man, renown throughout Europe for his music and his scientific discoveries. He had seemingly left his past behind him. For many years he gave little thought to the death sentence that hung over him. But then another German arrived in England. His name was George, and he was crowned King.
King George knew the secret of Herschel’s past. He summoned him before the royal court. Herschel arrived at the palace with great trepidation. As he waited in a chamber outside the throne room his past seemed to have finally caught up with him. After what felt like an eternity, the king’s servant brought him a document. Anxiously he opened it. It said, “I, George, pardon you for your past offenses against our native land.”
Herschel received a royal pardon. His desertion was not forgotten or overlooked. But he was now justified in the sight of the law, and released from his death sentence. The king’s pardon was definitive. In the same document, the king also knighted him for his outstanding achievements in music and science. From that time on he became known as Sir William Herschel. None of it could have happened apart from the pardon the king granted him from the death sentence hanging over him.
Similarly, justification is no legal fiction. It is the gracious judgment rendered by the Judge who has jurisdiction over us all. Likewise, our sin is ultimately against him. Further, he sent his only Son to uphold his justice. Jesus received the penalty due our sin. God's justice has been satisfied. Our sins have been accounted. But Jesus also secured God's mercy, for our sins have been forgiven. The Lord's declaration renders his judgment. Since it is the judgment of the perfectly true God, it cannot be false. What he declares, indeed, makes it so.
The Significance of Justification
As the Shorter Catechism puts it, we receive justification through faith in Jesus Christ. We believe that Christ’s work is sufficient for our righteousness before the eternal Judge. William Herschel illustrates that we always stand on our justification. As Ryken puts it: you can never base your justification on your progress in holiness. From start to finish, we live the entire Christian life by grace through faith in the perfect work of Jesus. That means continuing to trust Jesus for righteousness before God throughout our lives.
Our continuing need to trust Jesus Christ exposes a problem that seems endemic in American Christianity. It goes by many names, but sometimes it is even called, "practical Christian living." It assumes that once you’re saved, you need to move on to the real business of the Christian life. It assumes that a Christian achieves life through seven steps to a better marriage, ten steps to wonderful children, and five steps to financial freedom. I don’t mean to make light of any of those topics. They are all important. Nor would I deny that principles can be helpful.
But steps, no matter how many there are, can’t bring the Christian life to completion. After beginning by the Spirit, you can’t reach completion by the flesh (Galatians 3:3). If righteousness can be gained through human effort, then Christ died for nothing. Self-help, even in practical matters, won’t take you where you need to go. You don’t need steps as much as you need the power of the Holy Spirit. He works on the basis of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. You don’t need better know-how. You need to believe that Jesus is your life, and live accordingly. You never graduate from justification or faith in Jesus’ finished work.