Martin Luther was trained as a lawyer but due to a vow made to God he entered a monastery. As a monk he tried to live a righteous life, sometimes spending as much as six hours out of a day in confession of sins. In spite of this he still struggled with the impossibility of being made righteous. Here is the account, in his words, of his conversion experience. 

“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, in it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’

Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. Later I read Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter, where contrary to hope I found that he, too, interpreted God’s righteousness in a similar way, as the righteousness with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although this was heretofore said imperfectly and he did not explain all things concerning imputation clearly, it nevertheless was pleasing that God’s righteousness with which we are justified was taught.”

Luther later wrote these words, “now the article of justification, which is our sole defense, not only against all the force and craft of man, but also against the gates of hell is this: that by faith only in Christ, and without works, we are pronounced righteous and saved.”

Martin Luther’s grasp of justification by faith and the imputation of the righteousness of God propelled the Protestant Reformation along. This doctrine became the fundamental tenet of the evangelical movement.


Justification is a declaration by God that a guilty sinner is right in God’s sight and guilt is removed. This judicial act is based on three facts, the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ; the sinner’s acceptance of Christ by faith; and the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

There are three willing parties to the act of justification. The Lord Jesus voluntarily went to the cross to pay the price for sin and bear its penalty. A sinner by his own volition places faith in the Lord Jesus and on the basis of both these acts the Father declares that person to be innocent of all charges and thus guilt free.

As with all the major doctrines of the scripture there is both progressive revelation and a fuller development from Genesis through to how the epistles use the words and express the concepts. The New Testament gives theological import to words that were common in the language of the day but limited in meaning. As an example words like grace, love, hope, peace, and humility took on a different meaning in the Epistles as opposed to how they were used on the street.

The word “justification” is not found in the Hebrew Old Testament and only occurs in Romans 4 & 5. The first time any part of the word is used in the English translation is in Ex. 23:7 where God says of lawbreakers that “I will not justify the wicked.” The NIV renders this “I will not acquit the guilty.”

Job asked the question in 9:2, “How can a man be righteous before God?” In response to Job’s speech Zophar says in 11:2 “and should a man full of talk be vindicated?” The KJV renders the word as “justified” while most other translations use the word “vindicated.” In this context the meaning is “to be declared right.” Bildad adds a question to respond to Job in 25:4 “how then can a man be righteous before God?”

The gospels use the word “justify” in much the same way as the Old Testament concept. To vindicate or to declare right such as when the Lord Jesus said in Luke 7:35 “But wisdom is justified by all her children.” That is, that those who respond prove by their choice and life that the teaching of John and the Lord Jesus was right.

A notable use of the word “justified” is found in Luke 18:14 as applied to the tax collector who with the Pharisee was praying in the temple. The tax collector in humility pleaded for God’s mercy and thus expressed some understanding of propitiation and the mercy seat. The Lord Jesus that said of the two it was the tax collector that went to his house justified or vindicated.

Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 introduces a new idea to the concept of being justified in the sight of God. This would be radical news to the Jewish audience. Acts 13:38, 39 “Therefore let it be known to you brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.”

In order to more fully appreciate what is involved in justification it is important to understand the purpose of the law. Gal. 2:16 states that “a man is not justified 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.” He goes on to say in 2:21 “if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

This leads Paul to ask the question in Gal. 3:19, “what purpose then does the law serve?”

This may be a question an objector would raise after hearing Paul’s discourse on the law up to this point in the chapter. Paul said the law could not supply the Holy Spirit to them, the law could not justify them, it could not promote faith and it brought a curse with it.

No wonder someone may ask a question about the purpose of the law in light of all it could not do.
Paul goes on to explain some of the purposes of the law. The law revealed the sinfulness of sin and supplied a check on behavior by showing the wrath of God. The law acted like a guardian or disciplinarian until Christ came and people could move from law to grace and salvation by faith. In Rom. 3:20 Paul says, “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

There was nothing wrong with the law as Paul states in Gal. 3:21, “for if there had been a law given which could give life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.” The law exposed sin, gave a righteous standard but could not declare a person righteous or justified.


It is clear from the three references (Rom. 4:25; 5:16, 18) that use the word “justification” as a noun that doctrinally and practically it is tied to the person and work of Christ. Without His death on the cross there would be no grounds for a guilty sinner to be justified.

Romans 4:22-25

The climax of Paul’s argument in chapter 4 is found in verse 21 and 22, the fact that Abraham had faith and righteousness was imputed to him. Paul wants all to see that this righteousness is not tied to being a Jew or as a result of keeping the law. This righteousness came by faith and is available today on the same basis.

A person, who by faith, believes in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead at that moment the same righteousness is imputed to them. The divine basis for this act of imputation is that Christ was delivered up for our offenses. The resurrection was the Father’s seal of approval on the finished work of Christ so that justification can take place.

Romans 5:12-21

In the previous verses Paul has been dealing with sins, offenses, and transgressions. The sinful acts that are committed while here Paul turns to the root cause, the fact that mankind are sinners because of the disobedience of Adam.

One man introduced sin into the world and one Man’s righteous act brought in the possibility of justification. Adam’s disobedience caused all men to be sinners while through Christ’s obedience many will be made righteous. It is not the life of Christ but His death and resurrection that allow mankind to be declared right before God. This action results in life.

Justify and justifier as a verb appears a number of times in Romans and gives added dimension to what justification means.

Romans 3:21-31

Up to this point in the epistle Paul has concluded all men as guilty under the law. Now he moves from the law to God’s righteousness which is attested by the law and the prophets. The word “righteousness” and the word “justify” are from the same root in Greek.

All have sinned refers to all of mankind, whereas the “all” in verse 22 speaks of those placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. For those, without any cost, freely, by grace they are declared right in God’s sight.

The reason this action is possible is found in verse 25, it is due to the propitiation accomplished by the shed blood of Christ. God’s law demands a punishment for sin and Christ on the cross satisfied those demands. This allows God to maintain His righteousness and still be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 5:1

This verse introduces the results of being justified. The tense of the verb “being” suggests that it is a past act looking back to a point in time when this peace was entered into. This is a wonderful declaration of what has happened to a believer on the basis of faith. Having been declared right in God’s sight our standing has been radically altered. The hostility is removed, the enmity is ended, and we are reconciled to God. The guilt associated with our lawlessness is also removed and we have peace of conscience, of soul, and of mind. In Rom. 8:1 the result is “no condemnation.”

Further to this peace a believer has access by faith into the grace in which we stand. Justification throws open the door to all the riches of God’s grace. Beyond saving grace there is grace to serve, to be strong, to be sustained, and to be supplied. Attached to these things is hope in the very area we once fell short, the glory of God.

Galatians 2:16; 3:8

Paul asserts to these believers that the act of justification is not on the basis of the law and self-effort. In fact he says no one can possibly be justified by the law. Even prior to the giving of the law this principle was established in Abraham and through him all nations were to be blessed.

The danger for these Galatians was that they were being enticed to desert grace and go back under the law. The implications were that the death of Christ is minimized and the believer would put themselves back under bondage. These truths are presented to make the Galatians realize that justification has changed their status with regard to the law.

James 2:14-26

Martin Luther initially had great difficulty with this passage as it seemed to contradict Paul’s teaching of justification by faith. John Calvin recognized that “we are saved by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone.” There is no conflict between Paul and James as in all scripture there is harmony.

James is addressing the visible expression of faith as he says, “show me your faith without your works.” In verse 21 James takes a different incident in Abraham’s life than Paul did. Paul drew from Gen. 15 whereas James draws his proof from Gen. 22. James is showing how the demonstration of faith justified Abraham in the sight of man. He had previously been declared right by God and righteous was imputed to him on the basis of his faith as seen in Gen.15.


The act of God justifying a sinner is judicial or as theologians would say, forensic. Justification is one aspect of salvation, it does not involve pardon or sanctification or even forgiveness. These involve a change inside the sinner with regard to sin. Justification does not deal with the inside but rather the outside, the legal standing of a sinner before God. When God declares a sinner justified that person is then right with God as to status.

Perhaps a few illustrations from life will help to understand the distinctiveness of the act. Consider a marriage ceremony, when the declaration is made that the couple are now man and wife no inner change took place. Those words changed their status before friends and family and in the eyes of the law. Both went in a moment of time from being single to being married. Their life would change from that time onward but that is the result of the declaration.

Justification is a declaration by God that a guilty sinner is right in God’s sight and guilt is removed.

Think of a courtroom. The person convicted of a crime stands before the judge waiting for the judge’s decision. The accused will either be declared guilty or innocent depending on the judge’s determination. If the verdict is one of innocence, the one who was formerly the accused now stands before the judge as a free man. Nothing changed on the inside but as to the standing before the law and in sight of the judge the person is free of all charges. They are justified or declared right regardless of their character and other lawless acts.

There are several Old Testament stories that illustrate the doctrine of justification. In 2 Sam. 9 the account of Mephibosheth is one such account. Mephibosheth had no right to sit at the king’s table but David looked beyond Mephibosheth’s heritage and declared that he would be considered as one of the king’s sons. This act opened the door to the further blessing of eating continually at the king’s table.

The account of Joseph’s brothers coming back to meet Joseph also demonstrates the truth of justification apart from works. These men were guilty of several crimes toward Joseph yet Joseph absolved them of all guilt and then went on to provide for them.



The result of being justified and understanding what is involved gives the believer the assurance of salvation. The act of justification is a once for all declaration by God concerning the status of a sinner. There is no indication in scripture that this act can be undone or happen twice to the same person. Some believers teach that eternal life is tied to the believer’s performance while others insist it is maintained by perseverance. The truth is our life is preserved in Christ based on this declaration of God and His power to keep us in that standing before Him. The question is asked in Romans 8:33 “who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?” The response is “it is God that justifies.”


There should be a sense of what the act of justification has accomplished in a believer’s life. When this is true a Christian will desire to act as one who has been justified. The past is wiped out and there is a new start in Christ. Like Abraham our desire should be justification in the sight of those watching our lives. This happens when saints show their faith by their works.


Justification is a work of God performed on us in spite of the fact that we are hell-deserving sinners. Guilty, vile and helpless we, but God by an act of the divine will declares us just in His sight as a response to our faith in Christ Jesus. This should draw a response from us of praise and worship to Him. This should also be seen in our desire to live for Him.

Just as I was I came to thee, an heir of wrath and misery,
Just as Thou art before the throne, I stand in righteousness Thine own.

– J. Denham Smith    

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