Demosthenes well says that knowledge begins with definition. Every teacher needs to remember this, and be careful to define his terms. The Bible abounds in big words—words of tremendous importance—and we should exercise much care in defining these words.
The book of Job is full of questions. “Canst thou by searching find out God?” (Job 11:7). “If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14). “How can he be clean that is born of woman?” (Job 25:4). “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2). And this last question is repeated in Job 25:4 “How then can man be justified with God?” This last question is to have our attention in this article. Let us fix the question in our mind: How can rebellious man, who has tried to dethrone the God of all the earth, find acquittal with God?
A man was once asked if he would not like to be saved. He replied: “Yes, but I do not see how God can save me without doing wrong.” This man was a thinker. He went on to say that he had sinned: that God’s word declares the wages of sin to be death, and that as a sinner he must receive what he had earned. He confessed that he deserved to be punished, and could not see how God could remain just without punishing him for his sins. Job’s question was this man’s question.
There were no questions until sin entered the world. Eve was deceived into thinking that the forbidden fruit would make one wise and thus resolve all future questions. But this attempt to become wise resulted in separation from God with resultant darkness in the face of innumerable questions. Adam and Eve had been walking by faith—by faith in what God had said—but in disobedience they embarked upon a career of walking by sight, which means to believe what one sees. Eve saw that the fruit of the forbidden tree was good for food, and pleasant to the eyes. Now in salvation, the sinner is restored to the principle of walking by faith, which means to believe what God says. “The just shall live by faith,” (Heb. 10:38). “So then faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God,” (Rom. 10:17). If sin reigned by bringing questions into the world, then grace reigns by giving answers to these questions. How can man the sinner be acquitted before the Holy and righteous God? This is a big question, but there is a blessed and infallible answer found in the Bible. We will consider:
THE NATURE OF JUSTIFICATION, OR WHAT JUSTIFICATION IS
Justification is that particular aspect of salvation which consists of deliverance from the guilt and penalty of sin. It is the legal aspect of salvation in which one has right standing before God as Lawgiver. So far as guilt and condemnation are concerned, the believer is as perfect as if he had never sinned. Paul challenges the whole universe to lay anything to the charge of God’s elect “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth,” (Rom. 8:33). At Antioch in Pisidia, the apostle preached the crucified and risen Christ, saying, “And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses,” (Acts 13:39).
Justification is a forensic or law term. It does not refer to any inward work of grace as regeneration does. It has nothing to do with moral improvement, but with judicial standing. It means acquittal, vindication, acceptance before a judgment seat. The Council of Trent (1547) gives the Roman Catholic view of justification, in which the term is defined as “not the mere remission of sins but also sanctification and renovation of the inner man.” But such a definition confounds justification with regeneration and sanctification, other aspects of salvation.
Take the word in its everyday use, and it will be obvious that it has nothing to do with improvement of character or moral change. To justify one’s views does not mean to change them or to correct them but rather to vindicate them. To justify a course of conduct does not mean a change of conduct, but the vindication of what one has done. To justify a friend does not imply any change in your friend, but the vindication of him before some judgment seat, it may be, the bar of public opinion.
Take a clear illustration from Scripture: “If there be a controversy between men, and they come into judgment, that the judges may judge them, then they shall justify the righteous and condemn the wicked,” (Deut. 25:1). Here it is plain that no moral improvement is implied. The judges were not to make anybody better, but to declare who was right in the eyes of the law. A human court or judge can only maintain justice by justifying the innocent, but God maintains justice and magnifies grace by justifying the ungodly: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness,” (Rom. 4:5). There are no innocent people for God to justify, for all have sinned. The next question is that concerning the author of salvation.
THE AUTHOR OF JUSTIFICATION, OR WHO IS THE JUSTIFIER?
This question finds explicit answer in Romans 8:33: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.” There is no salvation through self-justification. In Luke 10:29 “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?” we are told of a certain lawyer who was willing to justify himself, but he was not saved thereby. Paul said, that even though he might not have anything against himself, he would not thereby be justified, for it is the Lord who judges; “For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord,” (1 Cor. 4:4). There were Pharisees who justified themselves before men, but that did not mean salvation. To be justified before God one must be justified by God. One might have a clean bill of moral health from his friends and neighbors, but to be saved he must be pronounced righteous by God. God Himself must pronounce the acquittal else we stand condemned before His righteous law. One’s conscience may not condemn, but the question of guilt and penalty is not left to the conscience. Nobody’s conscience would consign him to hell. It is not the human conscience but a holy God who must first be satisfied before there can be justification. This leads on to another question:
THE SOURCE OF JUSTIFICATION, OR WHAT CAUSES GOD TO JUSTIFY THE UNGODLY?
The grand answer to this question is found in Romans 3:24: “Being justified freely by his grace.” The adverb “freely” means “Without any cause or reason in the sinner.” It is the same word used in John 15:25, where Christ says, “They hated me without a cause.” There was nothing in Christ to merit the hatred of men, and there is nothing in any sinner to cause God to justify him; the cause is in God Himself. It is not good in the sinner but grace in God that moves Him to justify. In Romans 11:6 the apostle says, “And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.” To mix anything of human merit with divine grace is to destroy grace. It is either all of grace or none of grace. There is no conjunction joining anything with grace as the source or cause of justification. And yet, men dare to mix something of man with the grace of God as the moving cause of justification. This is to divide the honor and praise of salvation between the sinner and the Saviour, between men and God. Men may do that here on earth, but in heaven all honor and praise are ascribed to God. And this calls for still another question:
THE JUST BASIS, OR MERITORIOUS GROUND OF JUSTIFICATION
On what ground can God justify the ungodly and yet remain just? It is on the ground of blood atonement, “Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 3:24). “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace,” (Eph. 1:7). “Much more then, being justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him,” (Rom. 5:9). “Christ and Him crucified” is the only righteous ground for the justification of any sinner. And there is no “AND” anywhere in the Bible connecting anything with His blood as the just basis of justification.
The only way God can justify a sinner without doing wrong is to charge the sinners’ sins to Christ and credit Christ’s obedience to the sinner’s account. This is called imputed righteousness, or the righteousness of God. It is the righteousness Christ wrought out on the cross when He was obedient unto death. God justifies the penitent believer on the ground of the obedience of his Surety and Substitute, Jesus Christ. Obedience is always necessary to righteousness. And as the sinner has no record of obedience, he is therefore unrighteous on his own record. If the sinner is to become righteous before God, it must be by the obedience of Christ. Whose obedience is reckoned to the sinners’ account. The sinner is saved by obedience, but it is by the obedience of “Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption,” (1 Cor. 1:30).
Let us remember that the Lord Jesus came to this world as a public or representative person. He was God before He became man, and as God He had no personal obligations to the law except to enforce it as Lawgiver. He Who gave the law was made under the law for the purpose of redeeming them that were under law, that we might be adopted as sons of God “To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons,” (Gal. 4:5). Having no personal obligations, Christ could assume the obligations of a Surety. A surety is one who assumes all the legal responsibilities of the principal—of the one who contracted the debt. As the Surety for His people, it was Christ’s duty to die. He himself said that He ought to have died. After His death and resurrection, He joined Himself to the two as they walked to Emmaus, and said to them: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things?” (Luke 24:26). It was in grace that He took upon Himself suretyship engagements, but when He did, He was duty bound to die for sinners. Even yet, we are not through with questions relating to justification. Let us consider:
THE WAY OF JUSTIFICATION, OR WHAT THE SINNER MUST DO TO BE JUSTIFIED
The sinner is justified by faith and by faith alone. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” (Rom. 3:28). “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God,” (Rom. 5:1). “It is of faith that it might be by grace,” (Rom. 4:16). To add anything to faith on the sinner’s part is to add something to grace on God’s part. And since faith looks to Christ for salvation, to add anything to faith would be the same as adding something to Christ. Perish the thought! He must have all the glory.
Saving faith is much more than the mere assent of the mind to gospel truth, or to the acknowledgment of gospel facts. Trust in, or dependence upon Christ for salvation is a necessary element in saving faith. I believe in George Washington, that is, my mind acknowledges certain facts about him but it has never occurred to me to trust him for salvation. This might be termed historical faith—the kind of faith nearly everyone has in God and Jesus Christ. But a necessary element in saving faith is reliance or trust.
“Not saved are we by trying
From self can come no aid;
‘Tis on the blood relying,
Once for our ransom paid;
‘Tis looking unto Jesus,
The holy One and Just;
Tis His great work that saves us,
It is not try, but trust.
“No deeds of ours are needed
To make Christ’s merit more,
No frames of mind, or feelings,
Can add to His great store;
‘Tis simply to receive Him,
The holy One and Just,
‘Tis only to believe Him
It is not try, but trust.”
The virtue of faith lies in the worth of its object. Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection, is the only object of saving trust. Faith, however strong, in any other object cannot justify. This makes faith a thing as different as possible from merit. Richard Hooker says: “God doth justify the believing man, yet not for the worthiness of his belief, but for the worthiness of Him which is believed.” It does not make a beggar worthy of food to take it from the hand of his benefactor. Nor does it make a sinner worthy of salvation to receive it as a gift from Jesus Christ. It rather implies his unworthiness. The sinner is justly charged, but freely forgiven. It is not our faith, as a thing of merit that is accounted for righteousness, but Christ the object of faith. The Lord Himself is our righteousness. We are not saved on account of our faith; we are saved on account of Christ. We are forgiven for Christ’s sake. We must not trust our faith, but Him. And now in closing, there is a final question.
THE EVIDENCES OF JUSTIFICATION, OR WHAT ONE DOES TO PROVE HIS FAITH
We are justified evidentially by works, and by works alone. The only evidences of saving faith are our works. And this includes baptism as a work of righteousness. Any man who claims to be saved and refuses to be baptized, when properly taught the significance of baptism, has a mark against him, in my judgment. We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone, for faith without works is dead. The man who has saving faith also received a holy disposition in the new birth—a disposition or nature that seeks to please God. Saul’s first question after his conversion was, “Lord what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). Saving faith works by love. In the new birth there were a triplet of graces brought into being: faith, hope, and love—and these are inseparable.
There is no real difference between Paul and James on the subject of justification. They complement, but do not contradict each other. They deal with different classes in their treatment of justification. Paul writes about the justification of a sinner; James writes about the justification of a saint. Both of them illustrate their teaching by the same person: Abraham. Paul takes Abraham as a sinner and writes about justification in the sense of salvation; James takes Abraham, after he had been saved many years, and shows that he was justified by works when he offered up Isaac. Paul writes about God receiving a sinner; James writes about God approving a saint. Paul speaks of justification of persons; James speaks of justification of profession. One’s profession of faith is justified by his works. James challenges the faith of the man who says he has faith, but has no works—can faith, the faith he talks about, save him? Every saved person is justified, both by faith and also by works. As an alien sinner, he is justified by faith in the blood of Christ; as a professing believer, he is justified again and again by his works. There is no way to show our faith except by our works. The saved man is one who is depending upon Christ alone for salvation and who, out of love, is daily seeking to please Him. The saved man is poor in spirit, mourning over his sins, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and longing to be perfectly whole. The saved man anticipates perfection, but does not claim it. And may both writer and reader be able to join Paul in saying, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day,” (2 Tim. 1:12).
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