Last week, I started to unpack what the core doctrine of justification by faith means and why it is so important to our faith. I started to share five truths about this doctrine that we can learn from Romans 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” We already covered the first two statements:
- No one is saved on the basis of his or her own merits; and
- Justification is an act of God, not an action we perform. Now let’s cover the remaining three statements.
Justification is a declaration by God, whereby a sinner is declared forgiven of all his or her sins.
Consider Romans 8:33-34a which says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” Paul makes it clear that when God justifies the sinner, no accusations can be brought against those whom He has justified. Therefore, justification at its core is God’s declaration, not merely a reflection of an inner change within us. Because of what Christ has done on the cross on our behalf, God now declares us “not guilty” of all our crimes against Him and His throne – past, present and future!
Justification is “imputed” or “alien” righteousness
In Romans 4:5, Paul used the word, “counted” as righteous, which has also been translated as “reckoned.” Let me say at the outset what is at stake here. Justification must never be confused with sanctification. Sanctification – doing good works and growing in holiness – actually follows justification, but they are not the same thing!
In justification, God “imputes” or “reckons” us righteous in the cross of His Son. The issue in justification therefore is not how well we have done, but in what the cross has accomplished for us. It is God’s appraisal of the death of His Son that is at stake, not our performance. And so it is not our righteousness that that plays a part in our salvation, but the righteousness of Christ. If Christ has fully pleased the Father, we are saved. But, if Christ has failed to please the Father we are damned.
Justification is not about God making us righteous on the inside. No human being can become ‘more’ justified. We either are justified, or we are not. John Murray said it well: “The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us (this is sanctification). That is not what a judge does. He gives a verdict regarding our legal status (this is justification).” I would add that the entire nature of the gospel depends on understanding this distinction. When we confuse justification with sanctification, we have no gospel left to preach.
Justification is by grace alone through faith alone
We receive God’s free gift by faith alone. That means we reckon the value of the cross as sufficient in itself to forgive us all of our sins and make us acceptable in God’s presence. That is why our faith, not our works, is counted as righteous. And so faith is not something we do for God, it is rather our understanding of what God has done for us.
That is why Christians rejoice. We discover that Christ was crucified for us! We know that our sins are ultimately and finally dealt with by God, and not by us! We take no credit for that for which we did nothing. And this is the gospel. Christ died for us! We are acceptable before God! Our eternity is secure!