The truth upon which the church stands and falls is the doctrine of justification. It is the door hinge upon which the Christian religion turns. Without it, the door will literally swing off of its hinge! We need this doctrine because without it the church is no longer the church. Without the doctrine of justification, the church will lose everything that makes it distinct from the world. So what is this important teaching?
What does it mean to be justified?
It is the declaration by God that a wicked sinner is righteous. The basis for this righteous status comes not from within the sinner, but from Jesus Christ himself. He was righteous, and his righteousness is counted as if the sinner who trusts in Jesus was actually righteous. It’s as if he had never committed any sin and has himself accomplished all of the obedience that Jesus Christ has earned for him. What a sweet deal! There are many passages in the Bible that clearly teach the doctrine of justification. Here are a few of my favorites that illustrate this teaching:
And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Gen. 3:21)
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:14)
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:2–3)
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16)
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
Justification is as old as sin. Soon after Adam and Eve sinned against God and became “naked and ashamed,” God clothed them with the slaughtered skin of another. According to the passages highlighted above, justification is not only the declaration that our sins are forgiven, but it is also the declaration that a guilty sinner is actually righteous before God. Wow, what a statement!
In other words, God gives me a status that says: I’ve never sinned and I have always and only done what is right. That’s quite the declaration about us, based on what Jesus has done for us! No wonder David said, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psa. 32:1). This is very good news.
Now, this term justification comes from the courtroom. Think of a guilty person standing before a judge, and this judge declares the person innocent—acquitted—pardoned. In our judicial system, presidents are allowed to pardon criminals (presidential pardons are granted under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution). A pardon allows for a person who has been convicted of a crime to be absolved from that conviction (as if they never committed any crime). Of course, judges and presidents are not typically pardoning guilty people, as God does when he forgives someone. When someone is granted a pardon in our society, the person is at least presumed innocent or is at least considered to be deserving of release. This is not the case for us as transgressors of God's holy law.
C. S. Lewis once said, “All analogies break down,” and he sure was right in this case. This analogy doesn’t quite work because the basis for being declared righteous isn’t arbitrary, and it isn’t because we are innocent—we are the truly guilty party; and yet God’s pardon of us is rooted in the fact that Jesus was righteous and “served the time,” as it were, in our place. We are guilty, he was innocent—his innocence is counted as our innocence, and our guilt becomes his guilt.
Another way to think of this doctrine—to use an everyday example—is with banking. We use our debit cards almost daily, but everyone knows that we need money in the bank account in order to spend money. Justification in banking terms looks like this: you’re in debt by $10,000 dollars. You owe a lot of money. You can’t pay off this money because you don’t have a job. So someone else steps in to pay your debt. But he doesn’t stop there. He pays the $10,000 dollars that you owe, and then he gives you an extra $10,000 dollars. So you went from owing $10K (a negative balance) to actually owning $10K (a positive balance). This gets at the doctrine of justification in a helpful way.
We’re not only forgiven by God through Christ, we’re actually counted as righteous in his sight. It’s not just God clearing away all our debt, but God making us rich too—rich with the merits of Jesus Christ. As Paul taught us, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Without this teaching—this “Great Exchange,” as the reformers called it—the church is unable to be the church. In fact, she ceases to be that great beacon of light to the world—that exists to point the whole world to her savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The doctrine of justification is one of the most important teachings in the whole Bible. It is not the only teaching, of course, but without it, the church falls.