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Justification by faith: what does it mean?

What does it mean to be justified? Justification simply means to be made just, right or righteous. That is not man's natu­ral state, as we all know. The Bible says: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Even infidels will agree with the Bible on this—that no one is perfect. Yet God’s holy law demands perfection and “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).

Let us notice three statements about how men are justified.

  1. We are justified by God’s grace. “Having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7).
  2. We are justified by Jesus’ blood. “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9).
  3. We are justified by faith. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified [declared righteous] by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).

3 parts of justification:

  • Grace is God’s part and the ground of justification
  • Blood is Christ’s part and the means of justification
  • Faith is our part and the how of justification

Justification by...

It is utterly impossible for anybody to be justified by works or by obedience to the commandments or by going good. Listen to this plain statement made by the apostle Paul:

“Knowing that a man is not justified [declared righteous] by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16).

That’s clear, plain, and easy to understand. “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” justification is the work of God and not of man, and that is why nothing we can do will justify us. We are sinners.

If we should begin from this moment to live perfectly in harmony with God’s law, we would still not be able to wipe away the sins of our past. But we cannot live in perfect harmony with God’s law in our own strength, no matter how hard we try. Therefore, “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”

Justification of Abraham

We have Bible examples of a man who was justified by faith. His name was Abraham. We read about him in Genesis 15:5, 6:

“Then He [God] brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”

Notice that these three words—believe, counted and righteousness—are used for the first time in the Bible and they contain the three secrets of justification. We must believe God; then He counts our faith, our belief, for righteousness—for right doing, for commandment keeping.

Righteousness by faith

Now, how does God describe this righteousness that comes by faith? Here it is in Philippians 3:9: “And be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

This justification or righteousness from God, is a free gift as we read in Romans 5:16. It is not given to us as a reward for anything we have done. If it came to us as wages for work, it would merely be a matter of God’s paying a debt to us. (See Romans 4:4). But it is not this; it comes by grace.

Upon what condition is faith reckoned for righteousness? We find the answer in Romans 4:5: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

So you see, faith or belief is counted the same as obedience. It is obedience. On the other hand, unbelief is counted the same as disobedience, or sin. Since we are made righteous by God’s grace or justified by His grace, works are excluded. (See Romans 11:6). Yes, works are excluded as means or grounds of justification. Both Jews and Gentiles are under the same rule, They must be justified by faith. (See Romans 3:29, 30).

Abraham’s faith counted as righteousness

Why was Abraham’s faith counted unto him for righteousness? Because he did not stagger at the promise of God. (See Romans 4:20). The trouble with us is that so often we stagger at God’s promises. We do not accept the promises, but doubt them. Therefore, we are not justified.

Abraham was: “...fully convinced that what He [God] had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness’” (Romans 4:21, 22).

In other words, he believed. Justifying faith may lay hold not only upon the death of Christ but upon His resurrection too, for we read in Romans 4:25 that Christ was: “...delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”

“The resurrection of Christ, the promised Seed (Galatians 3:16), was necessary in order to fulfill to Abraham the promise of an innumerable seed; and therefore Abrahams’s faith in the promise of God which included the resurrection, was reckoned to him for righteousness. His faith laid hold upon that which made imputed righteousness possible” Bible Readings for the Home, p. 90.

Justification and belief

Something goes along with Justification. If it’s not present, it’s not real justification. What is it? The answer is in Acts 13:38, 39: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man [Jesus Christ] is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses”

Yes, Christ died for our sins. His perfect righteousness is accepted in place of our unrighteousness and disobedience and sin. “For as by one man’s disobedience [Adam] many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience [Jesus] many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

This fulfills the great prophecy of Isaiah 53:11 which pointed an unerring finger to our Lord Jesus Christ hundreds of years before He was born. “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.”

It was by bearing our iniquities on the cross in His atoning sacrifice that our Saviour is able to justify us sinners. We who are lost in sin are found in Him.

Justification and forgiveness

Ian Maclaren tells of a girl in Scotland who had wandered from home. Her father, in his anger and shame, blotted her name from the record in the family Bible. At last she returned, weary of the life she was living and penitent.

The old father relented and wanted to forgive her, but he just couldn’t forgive himself. So, bracing himself, he showed her what he had done in haste. When she saw that her name had been erased from the family record in the Bible, she was horrified.

Then, seeing the remorse on father’s face, she took a pen and wrote, “Flora Campbell missed April 1873; found September 1873.” Her father fell on her neck weeping, and kissed her.

So our heavenly Father blots out our sins and writes opposite our names in the book of life, “Lost and found.” That’s what justification is. It is really forgiveness. It is putting us back again in the family.

Imputed righteousness

By imputing our Saviour’s righteousness to us, what can God do and still be just? Here is the answer in Romans 3:26: “to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

You see, God doesn’t have to let down His rule, His standard of righteousness, at all. He passes over no sin. Everyone must meet his just reward. Jesus died for us. He paid the price. Therefore, God can still be a just God and at the same time justify those who believe in Christ Jesus as their Redeemer.

No wonder that in the great prophecy of our Saviour found in Jeremiah 23:5, 6 in which He is called a “righteous Branch” and also a “King,” He has a new name given him, “The Lord our Righteousness,” for He is our righteousness and He alone. When we are justified we are no longer at war with God. Peace is declared at last. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

When we are lost in sin we are on the losing side of the battle of life, but when we come over onto Christ’s side we are on the winning side. So it makes all the difference in the world whether or not we belong to the family of God. When we are justified by faith and at peace with our heavenly Father, we no longer are rebels against His law. The only basis, then, of our justification is faith, not human works.

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

Justification and the law

The law points out our sins. It is like a mirror that shows how dirty our faces may be. But the mirror will not clean our face; that must be done by a thorough washing. So it is with our hearts. It is only by a complete washing of them in the blood of Christ, through faith, that our hearts become clean. Then the same mirror that showed us our unclean condition will testify to the righteousness of Christ which lives in our hearts through faith. The apostle Peter says:

“I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21).

And that is true. Why should Christ die if He did not need to die, if we can work out our own salvation without His help?

The law and works

What is proved by an attempt to be justified by the law? “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

Why did Israel fail of the grace of God? The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 9:31, 32 that it is because, while they followed it not by faith, but as it were by works of the law. They stumbled at the stumbling stone. And thousands are stumbling right there even today.

What is the law for then...

Well then, you say, why does God give us the law? What is it for? We read in Romans 3:20: “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

The law is a mirror, it’s like the test tube, it’s like a measuring stick. The same law which bears witness to a man’s sin and condemns him but cannot cure him, heal him, or make him righteous, witnesses and testifies to the genuineness of the righteousness obtained by faith, apart from the deeds of the law.

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Romans 3:21).

Should the law be done away with?

However, faith in Christ as our only source and hope of righteousness does not do away with the law of God. In fact, it sustains and makes it forever certain. When the cross of Christ arose upon that lonely hill, it was made eternally certain that God’s law could not be violated by man without death, which is “the wages of sin.” (See Romans 3:23).

Christ died for our sins. He also proved that no man can be justified or made righteous by his own works. Therefore, God’s only Son Jesus must die for our sins.

The cross of Christ proved forever that the principles of God’s law are the principles of His character, and therefore eternally unchangeable. “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31).

If God forbids making the law void, we certainly should not teach any such doctrine. Faith sustains and establishes God’s law. What shall we do then? Shall we keep on breaking God’s holy law because we are saved by grace, justified by grace? The apostle asked that very question and answered it in Romans 6:1, 2:

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1, 2).

How is real faith revealed?

How can we know it when we see it? Those who talk of faith as something that destroys God’s law are making a terrible mistake, for “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

What is the evidence of genuine living faith, the faith that appropriates the righteousness of Christ? “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

And so by the blessed Holy Spirit of God, those who are born again, regenerated, those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as their saviour, testify to it by the grace of God alone without the works of the law. Then the works of righteousness appear in their lives as the fruit of that new life, the very life of Christ which is given to every believer.

In Romans 8:4 Paul says: “The righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Is that your experience? It can be. Glorious as it is, we may have that experience of peace and happiness now, right here in this world. The great exchange has been wrought by Christ—the great change in our lives.

“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Christ our righteousness

Martin Luther put it this way: “Learn to know Christ and Him crucified. Learn to sing unto Him a new song; to despair of thyself, and say, ‘Though O Lord Jesus! Thou art my righteousness, and I am thy sin! Thou hast taken what is mine, and given me what is Thine. What thou wert not Thou hast become, in order that what I am not I might become.’”

Friend, will you accept salvation today—God’s gift of eternal life in Christ?