Justification: Not Only for Theologians

How are rebellious, disobedient humans able to avoid the wrath of the God they have so consistently defied throughout their lives? Now that is a good question! Throughout history, Christians have phrased the question like this: How is a sinner justified before God? Justification is a theological and biblical word, but it is also very practical and universal in its applications.

Justification is the doctrine upon which every Christian relies. It is the only way that sinners may live in the presence of the holy God; they must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and free from the stain of sin. Quoting the Westminster Confession, Hodge relays the doctrine of justification as follows:

“The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”[1]

Justification is at the core of describing how God’s plan of redemption is effective for the salvation sinners. The word itself conjures up legal connotations, such as crime, law, judge, penalty and judicial declaration. There are numerous works, including the several used as resources in this article, which beautifully and profoundly extract the keenest observations from the biblical doctrine of Justification. The purpose of this work is to concisely communicate the wonderful work of Christ, both positive and negative, in justifying sinners by providing righteousness, expiation, and propitiation.

The Apostle Paul expressively speaks of the Gospel in Romans 3:21-26 when he says,

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This phrase is a commonly memorized verse for anyone who has attempted to learn the Romans Road in order to evangelize. The purpose of reciting this text is to point out the reality of universal guilt. Every human sins. The implication is that sin is not only a horizontal offense, but vertical too. Human sin is against self, others and the Creator who made and governs humanity. Those who sin are guilty before God and under the penalty of sin, namely death.

Elsewhere in the same portion of Scripture, the stark pronouncement is declared, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death here refers, not only in the physical sense of human mortality, but also to the idea that God will distribute His ultimate judgment of wrath on all who have rebelled in sin against His righteousness. God has established the law, all humans have disobeyed it and the perfectly just Judge is obligated to deliver justice. This bleak situation is the common bond of all people. Sin yields death and judgment, everyone has sinned, and God’s righteousness demands that all sinners endure the due penalty.

In an essay on justification, the purpose of preliminarily establishing the sinner’s guilt and God’s immanent wrath is two-fold. First, the gospel is good news because of the converse situation in which the unregenerate person presently finds him or herself. Hodge explains that justification rests “on the principle that God is immutably just, i. e;, that his moral excellence, in the case of sin, demands punishment.”[2]

Secondly, the redeeming work of Christ is a wonder without comparison because of the overwhelming holiness and justice of God.  Sinners may not realize and some may even choose not to acknowledge that they are hanging over a perilous pit of destruction.  God’s holy justice and consuming wrath is pointed at them every moment and God holds it back each second for reasons only known to Him. Dr. Sproul notes, “The Greek word Paul uses for ‘wrath’ is orgai. [Ro 3:18] The English word that derives from orgai is orgy… God’s anger is one of passion with paroxysms of rage and fury.”[3]

God’s wrath toward sinners is no jovial or moderate thing. The gratitude felt by any sinner’s escape of such fury is beyond expression.

What reason would any sinner have for embracing a hopeful attitude, believing some escape may be found? The message of good news concerning the person and work of Christ appears all the more stunning in front of this abominable backdrop. We who believe (i.e. trust in Christ) are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation” (Ro 6:24-25a).  Jesus has given Himself as the sacrifice for sinners and suffered on behalf of all those who would trust in Him.

The suffering life and excruciating death of Jesus Christ would be note worthy if only for the sake of uniqueness, especially in light of His deity. However, the biblical description of purpose behind such a work is that of representation.  Jesus is the representative of sinners before the bar of God’s judgment.  He is the one who absorbs the full wrath of God, which all sinners deserve.

Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is the work of expiation and propitiation. Expiation, according to Sproul, carries the idea that Christ “removes our sin from us and takes it away.” So then one aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that He removes the sin of sinners; He makes sinners clean. Sproul describes expiation is a horizontal work, washing human sinners, and propitiation is a vertical work, “satisfying the justice of God for us.”[4] God’s justice demands that sinners endure the due penalty for sin, namely His unbridled wrath. God is no just judge if He merely pardons the sinner and withholds punishment. Justice must be delivered, because God is the one and only perfect Judge.

Therefore, the work of Christ includes enduring the wrath of God as a representative for sinners. Grudem explains that Christ’s passive obedience can be observed in several ways.[5] Jesus’ obedience was not passive in that He was inactive or unengaged during such a time, but passive in the sense that He was obedient to endure suffering that was inflicted upon Him. Christ’s suffering included the human suffering of mortal life, the physical pain of death by crucifixion, the psychological pain of bearing the sin of all those who would be recipients of His atoning work, the emotional pain of being abandoned by His friends, the unknown pain of mysterious abandonment by His Father, and finally the unimaginable pain of bearing the full wrath of God. Jesus was obedient in a life and death of suffering like no other human has ever or will ever endure.

This is one-half of the work, which Christ has accomplished, that elicits the expression that Paul makes of God, “He [is] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). This aspect of Jesus’ redeeming work on behalf of sinners may be considered the negative aspect. Negative, not because it is bad, quite the contrary; His work is incredibly good as He subtracts sin (expiation) from the sinner and places it on His own shoulders in order to bear the punishment thereof (propitiation).

The negative aspect of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners (the subtraction of sin from the sinner and the atonement of such before God) is astonishing even if unaccompanied, yet it alone does not fulfill the necessary conditions of God’s requirements imposed on corrupt humanity. One must be righteous in order to receive approval from the holy King of the universe and to enjoy restful communion with Him. Expiation and propitiation are tantamount to the taking away of the sinner’s debasement, but without a life of perfect obedience the sinner is still not righteous or worthy of the approval of the King.

As established above, in the passage cited, all humanity has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of perfection. The completed work of Christ is both the subtraction of sinful debauchery and the filthy stain of its vestige, as well as the addition of the perfect righteousness achieved in the life of obedience that Jesus lived as the incarnate God-man. Dr. Sproul comments, “Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but also had to live for our righteousness. If Jesus had only died for our sins, His sacrifice would have removed all of our guilt, but that would have left us merely sinless in the sight of God, not righteous.”[6] Calvin explains, “from the moment when [Jesus] assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”[7] Jesus was not only the representative of sinners in His sacrificial death; He was also their delegate in His impeccable life.

The Apostle Paul, elsewhere in the book of Romans, explains that Christ was the second “Adam” (Rom 5). The first Adam, Paul says, disobeyed as the representative of humanity and God’s declaration of guilt on the entire human race was the result. However, Christ is the second Adam who lives an obedient life before God and as a result the “many” are “made righteous” in the sight of God. It only takes a light consideration of the contrast here to begin to marvel at the incredible distinction between the two “Adams.” The first Adam was directly created by God and placed in a marvelous garden, which he was to enjoy along with his naked wife (Gen 1, 2). The ground and plant life thereon produced vegetation for food effortlessly. For some amount of time, there was absolutely no sin and Adam had immanent communion with God. On top of all this, there was only one rule to follow and even that was a negative rule rather than a positive one, Do not rather than You must Do. Avoiding this one error meant blessed, sinless communion with God in perfect contentment forever.

However, Jesus, the second Adam, had much different circumstances.  In fact, the pinnacle of Christ’s obedient life was His time of fasting in the desert (Matt 4). Jesus had been fasting for forty days and was now in solitude in the desert when He experienced His temptation from the devil. This was no lush garden and He had no full belly. Jesus was seemingly all alone. Incredibly, His response was obedience rather than rebellion, even in obviously desolate conditions. The second Adam was a human representative, like the first, but His representation was one of perfect righteousness. Sinners, then, may rely on Jesus’ righteous obedience, as they understand their own lack thereof.

Salvation is wholly a work of the Lord. God supplies all we need and satisfies all of His demands in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God declares sinners righteous and provides the means by which He may declare them so. During the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther’s day, the defining call was the phrase “Justification by faith alone,” sola fide.

Sproul says this phrase is “merely shorthand for ‘justification by the righteousness of Christ alone.’ His merit, and only his merit, is sufficient to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. It is precisely this merit that is given to us by faith. Christ is our righteousness. God clothes his filthy creatures with the coat of Christ’s righteousness.”[8]

This imagery of clothing is helpful for a more accurate understanding of the concept.  The sullied sinner who receives the blessed joy of eternal reward in the presence of God almighty does so, not based upon his or her renewed fervor to live well, but because he or she has been covered by the foreign righteousness of Another. Christ’s righteousness is alien to the sinner, but imputed (assigned or accredited) to him or her by God because of the work of Christ.

Every sinner who has been regenerated (born again, John 3:3) by the Holy Spirit rests all his or her confidence in escaping God’s judgment on the completed work of Christ. Unlike most other religions and philosophies, Christianity is a worldview based on the inability of humanity to fix anything and a total reliance on God to reconcile whom He will to Himself. God demonstrates His own graciousness in granting sinners the gift of redemption, which can only be found in Christ Jesus. It is not hard to notice the legal notions in J. I. Packer’s comments on the matter when he says,

“Whenever God fulfills his covenant commitment by acting to save his people, it is a gesture of ‘righteousness,’ that is, justice. When God justifies sinners through faith in Christ, he does so on the basis of justice done, that is, the punishment of our sins in the person of Christ our substitute; thus the form taken by his justifying mercy shows him to be utterly and totally just (Rom. 3:25-26), and our justification itself is shown to be judicially justified.”[9]

In summary, the whole of humanity is guilty before a righteous Judge. This Judge is like no other. He is omniscient and omnipotent. Added to these ominous capabilities is His attribute of aseity; that is, He is self-existent and will never cease to be. This dreadful combination to sinners means certain and unending punishment for their rebellion. There is no way of escape in them and no hope that the Judge will simply forget or become careless concerning their malfeasance. Holiness and righteousness is the requirement, but sinners are covered in the stinking filth of the opposite. In this miry and hopeless state, God does something most unexpected; He pronounces His declaration of righteousness upon sinners who are not. He does so without the slightest impugning of His own righteousness and this seems all the more conflicting. One may wonder, How can this be?

Indeed, it is a wonder. God declares the sinner righteous in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. This is possible only because Christ is the provision of God for expiation, propitiation, and righteousness. The Apostle Paul describes God as the “Just” and the “Justifier.” God commands humans, “Be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Only because of the completed negative and positive work of Christ’s obedience can God and the sinner be thus.

[1] Hodge, C. (1997). Vol. 2: Systematic theology : 481–482. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sproul, R. C. Romans. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009: 38.

[4] Ibid: 103.

[5] Grudem, Wayne A., and Jeff Purswell. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999: 251.

[6] Sproul, R. C. The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012: 71.

[7] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.

[8] Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005: 67.

[9] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

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