1. Introduction
   a. Righteousness and Justification
   b. Moral v Law
   c. Made innocent/Considered innocent
2. The problem and the solution
   a. The problem
   b. The solution
      i. Law
      ii. Man
      iii. God
3. How it was achieved: God’s provision
   a. God’s initiative
   b. God’s gift
   c. God’s work
4. How it is received: Man’s response

1. Introduction

Justification is a subject that’s received a very great amount of treatment over the centuries that have passed since the Reformation took place, the subject being, in one very real sense, the subject that was the hallmark of that move of God. In these notes, I certainly don’t want to overkill the subject and, by choice, I want to be as brief and as ‘to the point’ as possible (something that I can’t say that I’m ‘in faith’ for from the outset!) without taking anything for granted.

Though Justification was a vitally important doctrine for which men and women gave their life to defend, the teaching as to what Christ has done is remarkably simple and concise.

a. Righteousness and Justification

The Greek words used to convey the concept of Justification and Righteousness are not worth listing here (though, if you want to see where they occur and the context in which they’re used, then they’re Strongs Greek numbers 1342, 1344, 1345 and 1347 variously translated by some form of the two words previously used) as they’re quite straightforward in their interpretation. But we should note immediately that, in the Bible, the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’ are synonymous - that is to say, they can be used interchangeably in the contexts in which we find them without altering their meaning significantly.

We may not consider these two words to be conveying one and the same concept but it’s true to say that, when we think of a man as being ‘righteous’, we could just as well consider him to be ‘just’. And, if a man is ‘righteous’ before God then it’s equally true that he can be labelled as ‘justified’.

Of course, to most of us, I suspect, both terms are equally obscure in present day language and aren’t the sort of words we use when shopping for fresh fruit or catching a bus! But they were everyday words in the culture of their day and, as such, conveyed important truth with a minimum of explanation being needed.

Perhaps it’s better for us to use the term ‘right-standing’? That is, a person is righteous or justified when he ‘stands in a right relationship’ before someone and is acceptable to them because there’s found nothing in that relationship that has tarnished it to the point where there’s a breakdown in the friendship that exists.

Certainly, if this makes it easier to remind yourself of the concept behind both righteousness and justification as you read this subject and read the Bible then it’s best that you do so.

b. Moral v Law

There’s a conflict amongst scholars as to whether the subject of ‘Righteousness’ is to be understood in either legal or moral terms. That is, we need to find an answer to the questions

‘Is righteousness a virtue, a characteristic of a godly life?’


‘Is it solely a verdict pronounced by a court of law upon an individual?’

The correct answer is probably that it’s both, even though most commentators usually opt for one or the other interpretation. There are occasions when the concept of ‘virtue’ seems the best interpretation (even though this concept appears to have been Greek, and not Jewish, in origin), though there are many more occurrences where the word is best understood as a legal term.

So it holds equally true that ‘righteousness’ in God’s eyes can be the result of the way a person lives their life before Him, in the things they do and say, and that it can be the pronouncement of God upon an individual even when the entire life is not being assessed.

For this mini-study, however, we’ll only look at the concept of ‘law’ as it’s this that has to do with the cross and the work of Jesus Christ.

c. Made Innocent/Considered Innocent

Justification and righteousness are predominantly legal terms in both the Old and New Testaments alike. Though it’s quite right to see righteousness, on occasions, as being a virtue, it’s usually evident that it’s to be understood in a legal setting. Justification means to get the decision in a court of law, to achieve ‘rightstanding’ in its eyes, to be declared ‘not guilty’ when all has been said and done and all the evidence carefully weighed.

Vines writes that

‘in the NT it denotes...a state of being right, or right conduct judged whether by the Divine standard, or according to human standards, of what is right’

and Morris points out that

‘it means a verdict of acquittal...’

Many have understood the word ‘justification’ in the context of the Gospel to mean ‘made not guilty’ - that God has changed man so that He becomes acceptable to Him. But it correctly means ‘considered not guilty’. In other words, there’s no implication in its use that indicates that there has to be a fundamental change in man for it to be achieved.

Even within our own legal system we can see that this must be the case. A court of law cannot make anyone ‘not guilty’ - it can only pronounce a verdict that’s a ‘consideration’ of all the known facts. The defendant, therefore, is considered, not made, innocent and it’s quite possible within the framework of mankind’s judicial system that the verdict could be wrong - a person could be considered ‘not guilty’ or ‘innocent’ even when he’s guilty. Morris writes that

‘...while it is true that the justified man will be deeply concerned with holy living, it is also true that justification is not simply another name for his holy life. It refers to his standing before God, to God’s acceptance of him’

2. The problem and the solution

a. The problem

To understand how it’s possible for justification before God to be achieved, we’ll look at a hypothetical, though typologically accurate, scene which takes place in the ‘imagined’ court of Heaven. In this scenario, we need to pay particular attention to the three characteristics of God, Man and Law which we’ll return to when we come to consider the solution in part b.

Man is in the dock. He is the defendant. It’s the end of the man’s life and now he must face the consequences of his life on earth.
God is the Judge. He is to determine the outcome of the charges brought against the man.
There’s no jury - God alone will pronounce the verdict.
The book of Divine Law is opened and man’s life is judged by what is written in it - each thought, each response, each action is taken into account and compared with the perfect standard recorded in the book.
At the end of the hearing, the Judge places a black covering on His head as He pronounces the verdict:
‘The court of Heaven considers you guilty of transgressing the Divine Law - the penalty for such an offence is death...’

Now let’s stop the proceedings here and consider what needed to have been done for man to have been able to receive the decision of ‘not guilty’ upon his life.

b. The solution

Man is guilty before God because he’s transgressed the Divine Law (where a transgression is called ‘sin’ - see Ps 143:2, 130:3, 14:1-3, I Kings 8:46, Job 25:4, Eccles 7:20, Rom 3:23).

Whether we think of ‘Divine Law’ as the law of Moses, the ‘knowledge of what’s right to do’ (Rom 1:19, James 4:17 and see the subject ‘Propitiation’) or, even, conscience (Rom 13:5), the point is still the same. Though the man knew what was right to do, he failed to achieve it through his own individual choice.

Note that I use the word ‘Law’ to describe a Divine righteous standard that man is fully aware of yet fails to keep in its entirety so that, depending the experience of the man, it can be many different concepts. At the very least, it will be the witness of Creation (Rom 1:19-21).

However, in our court room scenario, there’s the possibility that the man could be declared ‘not guilty’ (justified/righteous) if there can be a change made in one of the three elements as outlined in part a - either to God, the Law, or to man himself. If any one of these three elements can be changed or rectified then it could be possible that man could get the acquittal that he needs.

We’ll take these three elements one by one.

i. Law

The reason man is guilty is that He’s fallen short of God’s perfect standard for his life (Rom 3:23). But if there was a change in God’s standard (in His Divine Law) then it would free man from the condemnation that rests upon his life through sin. We could reason that God expects too much from man so that the standard should be lowered to allow the ‘best’ of mankind in - not just the ‘perfect’ - that God has no right to insist upon a perfect way when there’s never any possibility that man can live up to it.

However, the law comes from the heart of God - it’s His very nature. As was seen under the subject ‘Covenant’, the first giving of the Law to mankind was by God’s writing on God’s tablets, showing us that the Law itself was an expression of who God is and not just of what God likes to think men and women should do on earth.

To alter the Law would be to alter the character of God and, as God doesn’t change, then neither can the Divine law. In other words, if God were to abolish the commandment (Ex 20:14)

‘You shall not commit adultery’

in order to justify men in His sight, then our concept of God would be of One who not only approves of adultery but who promotes it. God would be seen to be a liar and His law would not then reflect His character.

Besides, if we then entered into a ‘love relationship’ with God, how could we be sure that He wouldn’t ditch us for some other when He got fed up with us?! So, far from being commandments that God thought would be a nice idea for His people to try and obey when they entered into covenant with Him, they’re actually expressions of the character of God, showing us what sort of person He is.

When I first typed this, quite a number of years ago, there were current proposals being made in England to change the law regarding drug use, allowing certain substances to be used without fear of prosecution. At this moment in time, the call for the legalisation of cannabis (and probably other drugs as well should legislation like that be passed) is gaining momentum once more which would bring people out of the state of being ‘law breakers’ (unrighteous) into a state of being ‘law keepers’ (righteous).

But such legislation only alters the standard to cause people to become justified (that is, considered ‘not guilty’) in the eyes of the law, it doesn’t actually effect any change in the individual and is certainly powerless to prevent drug abuse. By changing Law, you don’t change man for the better - even though the Law being changed is making it appear so.

The demand of the Divine law, then, is that all transgressors are guilty before God, unrighteous and unacceptable to Him and that Law cannot be changed without denying the character of God.

ii. Man

If man had been able to change himself so that he was obedient to the full demands of the Divine Law, then he would have brought himself into a position of innocence before God.

Of course, that would mean that before a man sinned for the first time he would have had to have resolved himself to be totally obedient throughout the rest of his life, for to transgress in one point is to be guilty of all (James 2:10) seeing as God’s Law is a unity rather than a series of statutes. Past sin is just as much a matter of guilt before God as is present sin and, even though a man may stop sinning for a time, there’s still sin in his past that needs to be dealt with.

But no-one is justified by works of the Law (Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16, 3:11) - that is, by trying to achieve the perfect standard that God desires of all men and women.

Further, the judgment following one trespass (Adam’s) brought condemnation. His sin condemned all mankind so we are already guilty (Rom 5:16,18).

It’s not just that no individual has ever lived ‘perfectly’ in accordance with the ways of God, but that the sin of Adam has already tarnished the rest of the human race so that ‘acceptance by works of the Law’ or acceptance by observance of any written code is an impossibility from the start - or, rather, even before we start!

Every man deserves the verdict of ‘guilty’ and, if ‘guilty’, then he deserves death, separation away from the presence of God (Rom 6:23).

No man, therefore, is able to change himself in order to be acceptable (justified/not guilty/considered righteous) before God.

iii. God

God never changes (Mal 3:6, James 1:17) - He’s the same today as He was yesterday and He’ll be the same forever. If we’re looking for a change in the character of God to make it possible that a man may be acceptable, forget it!

However, justification through Christ means that there’s been a change in the way that God views mankind. A person is considered ‘not guilty’ even though the unchangeable Law condemns him as a transgressor and even though there’s no change in the individual (in Christ, provision has also been made to change the individual, but, for justification to be effected, a change of lifestyle is not a condition).

In that case, the Law’s requirements have been fully satisfied that bring condemnation to the man, releasing the transgressor from the consequence of his sin which is Divine judgment.

The man is reckoned to be ‘not guilty’ because of a change - not in the man, neither in the Law, but with (and not in the character of) God the Judge.

In the next two sections, we’ll look at both how this was achieved and how it’s received. Suffice to say here that it’s how God views man that’s made the difference to our standing before Him and not because there’s been a relevant change in the courtroom scenario that we started off this section with.

3. How it was achieved: God’s provision

a. God’s initiative

Rom 4:5-6 talks about

‘...Him who justifies the ungodly...’

where the context of the passage is that God justifies those who aren’t attempting to work out a righteousness of their own based on a standard that is to be lived up to, and Rom 8:33 states that

‘it is God who justifies...’

(see also Rom 3:30, Gal 3:8). It’s a fair comment to say that all that we have available to us is ours solely because God has taken the initiative and brought it about . As you’ve progressed through the subjects dealt with in this book, you’ll have seen that the initiative to restore mankind through the cross is never with man but with God.

Man, left to himself and his own resources, could never have achieved ‘right-standing’ with God (as he couldn’t have achieved anything else that would have been beneficial in restoring a right relationship with Him).

Man can get the ‘not guilty’ verdict solely because God has done something to rectify the condemnation that rested upon every individual.

Therefore, it is God who justifies.

b. God’s gift

Rom 5:16 tells us that

‘...the free gift...brings justification...’

and Rom 3:24 that

‘...they [believing men and women] are justified by His grace as a gift...’

(see also Rom 3:28, 4:4-5, 4:7-8, 11:6, Titus 3:7). Man finds himself ‘justified’ by a free gift bestowed upon him by God. It’s not the end result of man attempting to attain a position where the verdict ‘not guilty’ is the just and only decision that can possibly be made.

Justification, therefore, is given, not earned.

c. God’s work

In the previous section (part 2), we considered a hypothetical situation in which a man stood condemned before God the Judge, due to his failure to come up to God’s perfect standard (Divine Law).

Many would write a conclusion by seeing Jesus step forward from the shadows and declare that He would take the just requirements of the Law upon Himself so that the man could be considered ‘not guilty’. Indeed, that’s exactly what a lot of theologians have done as they’ve sought to explain what justification is about.

But that’s not totally accurate - in fact, it’s not at all accurate.

It’s not that Jesus announces to the Judge that He’ll take our place - Jesus is the Judge (Acts 10:42, II Timothy 4:1, John 5:22). He’s God the Judge who takes our place - the One who pronounces the verdict is also the One who secures justification on behalf of the ones who are condemned.

Though we would see a third party as taking upon Himself the sentence that Law demanded, it’s none other than the Judge Himself.

Just as a work, an action, of disobedience led to condemnation for the human race and so leads to condemnation for all men because all men fall short of God’s perfect standard, so Jesus’ work of righteousness, of obedience, leads to our acquittal (Rom 5:18), though specifically we’re thinking of His obedience in doing what the Father required of Him through His tasting of death in the shedding of His blood on the cross (Phil 2:8, Rom 5:9) - where ‘death’ is thought of primarily as ‘spiritual death’ (that is, a separation from the life of God - Mtw 27:46).

It was the cross where God laid on Jesus the Divine judgment upon man’s sin (Is 53:5,8,10,11) so removing the hindrance that had existed to a right-standing with God. Where, in a rather confusing statement, we could say that God the judge judged God the judge with the judgment that man deserved.

Rom 4:25 puts it simply but effectively that

‘He was put to death for our trespasses (the offering that took the punishment) and raised for our justification (the proof that the offering was accepted)’

It’s because of the resurrection that we know that the judgment of God has been satisfied in Christ’s work on the cross - had He not been raised from the dead then there would have been no proof that the sentence had been acceptable to God. The cross, then, is quite rightly referred to as ‘the Day when death died’ or, when we consider just what was achieved on our behalf even though we hadn’t deserved it, ‘the Day God went bananas’.

Man is now ‘considered not guilty’ before God if he responds correctly to His initiative - and that’s what we must finally turn our attention to before closing.

4. How it is received: Man’s response

In the introduction, we saw that, normally in the Bible, ‘justification’ doesn’t refer to a response of God to man’s holy life (often referred to by Paul as ‘works’ or ‘works of the Law’) but to a pronouncement of acquittal in a court of Law. The initiative, as with the other subjects we’ve been thinking about, is solely with God who achieves through the work of Jesus Christ what man could never have done by himself.

But, though God has accomplished justification, it doesn’t follow that all are justified, because His work must be met in man by the response of faith to be effected.

Therefore, Paul states (Rom 3:28) that

‘...a man is justified by faith...’

and that (Rom 5:1)

‘...we are justified by faith...’

and, further (Rom 3:26 - see also Gal 2:16, 3:24), that

‘...He justifies him who has faith in Jesus’

‘Faith’ could be defined as a belief in a fact (that is, belief in the work of Christ) but the concept and outworking of faith must go beyond this to speak of an individual’s trust in the work of Christ as the sole reason for being acceptable to God and not a reliance upon any means of justification that can be achieved, won or worked at (Rom 3:28, Acts 13:39 - see also the study on ‘Faith’).

It’s correct to say that, after having received justification in the sight of God by faith, a totally different lifestyle opens up before an individual - not to seek to be obedient to a written code, but to be obedient to the Person and voice of Jesus Christ, all the while experiencing a life that’s free from condemnation (Rom 8:1-8).

New christians, in my experience, often have a problem accepting that they’re acceptable to God because of the way of life they used to live before their conversion experience. Sometimes, they find it hard to believe that God can welcome them in to His family because of the things they’ve done or had done to them - maybe even because of the places that they used to frequent.

But all these things are dealt with in Christ in order that they may be acceptable on the basis of what has been done for them rather than because of what they’ve done themselves.

Finally, notice James 2:14-26. We mention this passage only in passing as it’s often been used to confute the doctrine of ‘Justification by faith alone’ because the author writes (James 2:24)

‘...you see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone’

However, if the passage is read carefully, it will be seen that James’ argument is that if a person professes faith in Christ, then the outcome of that faith must be works that are acceptable to the Lord.

Faith, then, is still primary and works are only seen as the proof of one’s faith, the natural outworking of what makes justification receivable in an individual.