Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)Justified. In the Bible and in Paul’s theology, justification is a pretty important word. So what does it mean? I think we probably already have a general understanding of what it means.
We justify things all the time. At work, for example, whenever you buy something or incur any kind of expense on the job, you have to file an expense report, and justify it in order to be reimbursed. Think back to your childhood—or for maybe any of the children or teenagers in the room—have you ever been in trouble with your mom or dad, when they ask you “explain yourself!” Or even think about the decisions you make from day-to-day. You’re in the grocery store and in the frozen section you see that fantastic dessert. And you don’t buy it because you just can’t justify the extra calories. Or maybe do buy it, because you think to yourself, well, we don’t have dessert that often, so it’s okay. In any one of these circumstances, you’ve made an argument—either with your employer, with your parent, or with yourself—that your expense, or your behavior, or your dessert is good. That’s just like justification.
The Law holds us accountable to God
In terms of the Bible, justification involves answering for our lives before God. Flip back to Romans 3:19. It says “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” All the way back in Genesis, God says to Adam and Eve in the garden, “you can eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except for one. You see the tree in the middle of the garden? Don’t eat from that tree.” Adam and Eve had their instructions. They were to tend the garden, cultivate it, be fruitful, and avoid eating the fruit from that one tree. In those circumstances, Adam and Eve were at peace with God. They lived in constant unbroken fellowship with God. But you know the story. They were tempted to eat the fruit of that one tree in the middle of the garden, and they did.
Think again of the Israelites in the wilderness. God gave them the law through Moses, and very first law was this: You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. What was the very first thing the Israelites did? They created the image of a calf, and they bow down to it, worshiped it, and served it.
And in the passage we read this morning, Romans 3:23, it says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Back to verse 19, Paul says because of this “every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” You know this – every single one of you. You know you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself – and if that’s true about your neighbor, it’s certainly true about your family. But how easily does a careless, hurtful word come out of your mouth?
We talked about the things we justify every day a moment ago. In that every day sense, how many times do we try to justify doing things we know we shouldn’t. The example of the dessert was funny, but their things are other things that are not quite so funny. You know what those are for you.
The point is that none of us can speak back to God when it comes to the judgment, because we know we’re sinners. We all stand condemned before God. Just like David, who prayed in Psalm 51: “against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
But here’s the great news. It seems that God is in the habit of forgiving sins. And Paul points this out in Romans 3:24-25, “we 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.”
Two reasons Jesus died on the Cross
There are two important things we notice in that verse—two reasons Jesus died on the cross. The first reason Jesus died on the cross for us is called propitiation. That means that on the cross, Jesus Christ made atonement for us. The picture is of the sacrifices in the Temple in Holy of Holies, where blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant. God is perfectly holy. He is perfectly good, and that means he cannot simply excuse sin without consequences. But just like our first parents before us, we are sinners and we sin. And since God planned from the beginning to forgive sins, he would have to make atonement. He is the only one completely qualified and able to bridge the gap created by our sin and his justice. So in his death on the cross, Jesus Christ—who is perfectly holy, who is perfectly God and perfectly human—stood in our place. He took the sentence of death that we deserve, and grants us the record of his perfect righteousness.
The second reason Jesus died on the cross for us, we see in verse 25: God has from the very beginning been in the habit of forgiving sins. In the garden, God sentenced Adam to death, but forgave him and promised a savior. With Israel in the wilderness, God forgave Israel, and kept his promise to them. He adopted them as his people and gave them the law anyway. He gave them judges and later a king to govern them. And even though it took a whole generation, he brought them to the Promised Land. You can see God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout the history of the Bible. Even when Israel is unfaithful to God, he forgives them, holds on to them, and brings them back. This is God’s attitude toward his people throughout the entire Bible. So we see in verse 26, “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.”
A concise definition of Justification
So in this second sense, Justification means that God is justifying his own forgiveness of our sins so that me might be both just and the one who justifies. That’s justification. God justifies us. To recap, here is a simple and concise definition: “Justification is an act of God's free grace, in which He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
I’ll repeat the definition here, because I think it’s important. If you have a pen and can take notes, please write this down, because if you remember this today, and nothing else, it will have been worth it. “Justification… is an act of God's free grace…, in which He pardons all our sins… and accepts us as righteous in His sight… only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us… and received by faith alone.”
If you are found in Christ today, this is true about you. God has pardoned you of your sins, and he has accepted you as righteous, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to you. That’s true whether you’re “mature in the faith” or “brand new in the faith.” That’s true whether you feel like you’re living a victorious Christian life, or whether you feel like you fail a whole lot more than you should. God has pardoned you of your sins, and he has accepted you as righteous, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to you.