How are we justified?
We have considered in “Justification: What is its basis?” how we cannot be justified through any means except what God is pleased to accept. God has made it clear that the only basis upon which we can be justified is as a result of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and our repentance before Him. This study considers how God has been able to be righteous yet justify sinners.
Justification seen in the parable of the two men in the temple
The Lord Jesus showed clearly the contrast between mankind’s ideas of justification and God’s thoughts in the following parable:
“And he spoke also to some, who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and made nothing of all the rest of men, this parable: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee, standing, prayed thus to himself: God, I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax-gatherer. I fast twice in the week, I tithe everything I gain. And the tax-gatherer, standing afar off, would not lift up even his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, O God, have compassion on me, the sinner. I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than that other. For every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
This Pharisees’ many words about his own goodness did not help him at all. “Should not the multitude of words be answered? and should a man of much talk be justified?” (Job 11:2). “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13). The Pharisee appeared to be morally upright on the outside and no doubt read and heard the Law but he was unable to fulfil it though he didn’t recognise this solemn fact. The tax-gatherer cast himself completely on God’s mercy and it was there that He found that God justified him. Note that it didn’t make any difference in the man himself, but rather the difference was that the man was justified in God’s sight. His position had changed from being a sinner to being a justified man before God. This is the lot of every Christian who has, in committing themselves completely to God’s mercy, found that God has justified them and removed their sins forever from before His all-consuming gaze. God’s view of us is now as a justified person and nothing that we do or no way we feel can alter the fact that if God says we are justified then we are justified.
We are justified by God alone as a result of repentance before Him. We have to realise that we have sinned before God. This is a just view of ourselves. “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in thy sight; that thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, be clear when thou judgest” (Psalm 51:4). Up to the point of our repentance we were unjust, believing we had something good in ourselves that God would value. In reality we find that we have nothing of value to offer Him but can only beg for mercy and when realise this, we come in repentance finding that God is able and willing to justify us completely. Isaiah recognised this in the Old Testament when he said “In Jehovah shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory” (Isaiah 45:25). It is only in God that anyone can be justified. “But believes on him who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 2:5). He has chosen, called and justified us so that he might glorify us with Christ. “But whom he has predestinated, these also he has called; and whom he has called, these also he has justified; but whom he has justified, these also he has glorified” (Romans 8:30).
“But knowing that a man is not justified on the principle of works of law nor but by the faith of Jesus Christ, we also have believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified on the principle of the faith of Christ; and not of works of law; because on the principle of works of law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
Yet we might now ask the question: “How can God be just and yet justify sinners?”
How can God be just and yet justify sinners?
“Now we know that whatever the things the law says, it speaks to those under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world be under judgment to God. Wherefore by works of law no flesh shall be justified before him; for by law is knowledge of sin. But now without law righteousness of God is manifested, borne witness to by the law and the prophets; righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ towards all, and upon all those who believe: for there is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth a mercy-seat, through faith in his blood, for the shewing forth of his righteousness, in respect of the passing by the sins that had taken place before, through the forbearance of God; for the shewing forth of his righteousness in the present time, so that he should be just, and justify him that is of the faith of Jesus. Where then is boasting? It has been excluded. By what law? of works? Nay, but by law of faith; for we reckon that a man is justified by faith, without works of law. Is God the God of Jews only? is he not of the nations also? Yea, of nations also: since indeed it is one God who shall justify the circumcision on the principle of faith, and uncircumcision by faith” (Romans 3:19-30).
This section in Romans shows clearly that the law has stopped every mouth and that it means that no-one really has any defence before God because of the fact that we all have broken God’s law. As a result, the whole world must come under God’s judgement. We have all sinned and are therefore completely unjustifiable. “So that the law has been our tutor up to Christ, that we might be justified on the principle of faith” (Galatians 3:24). The Law has exposed us to our need for the Lord Jesus; for He can save us where we can’t save ourselves. So God has set out a way by which it is possible for us to come near to Him by faith in Christ.
In the tabernacle that God instructed the Israelites to make, God set out a way by which the priest (representing the children of Israel) could come to Him. The altar had to be passed first where the burnt and sin offerings were made. Then the laver of water where the priest had to wash, recognising his natural uncleanness and need for purity in God’s presence. Then, when he went into the holy place there was the veil cutting off the ark of God from the sight of all. Once a year, with the blood of a lamb, the high priest could enter the ‘Holy of Holies’ and look on the ark of the covenant. He would sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat which was on top of the ark. This meant that God could look on the sacrifice as being offered for the sins of the children of Israel and thus He would continue to go with them. The blood of the lamb was symbolic of the great “lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) whose own blood would be used to remove every sin, past, present and future. Perhaps we might have wondered how God could pardon and justify people before the Lord’s death and resurrection but this passage shows that the Lord’s sacrifice of Himself demonstrated how God was righteous in being forbearing with past sins knowing because He has His eye on the sacrifice which was going to be made by the Lord Jesus. The blood of Christ was “foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). God could look forward to it when He covered the sins of Moses, Abraham, David and so on and now He can look at it when justifying us today.
Today, we know that the Lord Jesus has been the ultimate sacrifice. He has shed His blood and this passage shows that this blood has been used to enable God and man to come together again. Jesus is the ‘mercy seat’ of our present time and God can come near to us and speak to us through this mercy seat (just as He spoke to Moses from the old mercy-seat in the tabernacle).
Thus it is that God can be completely righteous in justifying us because of the fact that the Lord Jesus, who knew no sin, has died on our behalf bearing the judgement for our sins. This was the value of the life of the Lord Jesus. God couldn’t have justified us if the Lord hadn’t been sinless. “For if by the offence of the one death reigned by the one, much rather shall those who receive the abundance of grace, and of the free gift of righteousness, reign in life by the one Jesus Christ:) so then as it was by one offence towards all men to condemnation, so by one righteousness towards all men for justification of life.” (Romans 5:17-18). The righteousness of the Lord was what made His sacrifice so valuable. His one righteousness was His whole life for He was never unrighteous. It is his righteousness that is given to us when we are saved and God delights to justify the righteous. All God requires of us is repentance and trust in the Lord Jesus for our salvation. It is faith that results in our justification and the faith we have is a gift from God (see studies on Faith). As a result, we cannot boast for we have done nothing worthy of justification. God has given us faith that enabled us to cry to Him for mercy and we have been justified through the Lord Jesus because of God’s delight in Him alone –not us.
The Law can only condemn us. Good works can’t save us. So it says “and from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses, in him every one that believes is justified” (Acts 13:39). Our belief results in our cry of faith to be saved, “for by thy words thou shalt be justified” (Matthew 12:37) and as a result of those words of repentance which are an expression of our new found faith, we are justified.
Yet it was not simply the Lord’s death that resulted in our justification. His resurrection was for the purpose of justifying us. “Jesus our Lord, who has been delivered for our offences and has been raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The fact that He rose from the dead shows us clearly that the sins that He bore on our behalf on the cross are gone forever and He is no longer bearing them.
How can I be sure that I’m justified?
“Therefore having been justified on the principle of faith, we have peace towards God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
“Much rather therefore, having been now justified in the power of his blood, we shall be saved by him from wrath” (Romans 5:9).
“He is near that justifieth me: who will contend with me? let us stand together; who is mine adverse party? let him draw near unto me” (Isaiah 50:8).
“Who shall bring an accusation against God's elect? It is God who justifies: who is he that condemns? It is Christ who has died, but rather has been also raised up; who is also at the right hand of God; who also intercedes for us” (Romans 8:33-34).
“And these things were some of you; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
In these verses we see how definite and stable our justification is. If God has justified us through the faith of Jesus, then no-one can condemn us. He has righteously justified us and thus we have peace. So too, do we have the intercession of the Lord Jesus for our continual needs. In God’s sight we have died already and been raised with Christ. This is why our lives are transformed. We have been justified from sin and therefore can no longer live in it.
“For if we are become identified with him in the likeness of his death, so also we shall be of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man has been crucified with him, that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin. For he that has died is justified from sin.” (Romans 6:5-7).
We know from God’s own unfailing word that He has justified everyone who is of the faith of Jesus Christ. Nothing can change this because it is the Lord’s own blood that covers every sin. We can have confidence because we have God’s own word telling us that He has personally justified us in His own sight.