John Murray, a Scottish pastor/theologian and a man who I don’t think was as mean as his picture to the left looks, provides some helpful, clarifying remarks on what justification is not in his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. He writes:

[The] truth that God justifies needs to be underlined.  We do not justify ourselves.  Justification is not our apology nor is it the effect in us of a process of self-excusation.  It is not even our confession nor the good felling that may be induced in us by confession.  Justification is not any religious exercise in which we engage however noble and good that religious exercise may be.  If we are to understand justification and appropriate its grace we must turn our thoughts to the action of God in justifying the ungodly.  At no point is the free grace of God more manifest than in his justifying act–“being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24)….[Here’s a subtle, but important nuance!] Justification does not mean to make righteous, or good, or holy, or upright.  It is perfectly truth that in the application of redemption God makes people holy and upright.  He renews them after his own image.  He begins to do this in regeneration and he carries it on in the work of sanctification.  He will perfect in glorification.  But justification does not refer to this renewing and sanctifying grace of God” (all emphasis mine). [pp. 118-119]

Murray goes on to define what justification is:

“Justification means to declare or pronounce to be righteous…Justification is…a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed [credited] to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight…The righteousness of Christ is the righteousness of his perfect obedience, a righteousness undefiled and undefilable, a righteousness which not only warrants the justification of the ungodly but one that necessarily elicits and constrains such justification.  God cannot but accept into his favour those who are invested with the righteousness of his own Son.” [pp. 122, 124]

Two other helpful definitions of justification include Wayne Grudem’s and Robert Reymond’s.  First, Grudem notes in his Systematic Theology:

“Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.” [p. 723]

Though far more “wordy”, Reymond’s definition/explanation in his A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith is undoubtedly thorough and profoundly helpful:

“The doctrine of justification means…that in God’s sight the ungodly man, now “in Christ,” has perfectly kept the moral law of God, which also means in turn that “in Christ” he has perfectly loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and his neighbor as himself.  It means that saving faith is directed to the doing and dying of Christ alone (solus Christus) and not to the good works or inner experience of the believer.  It means that the Christian’s righteousness before God is in heaven at the right hand of God in Jesus Christ and not on earth within the believer.  It means that the ground of our justification is the vicarious work of Christ for us, not the gracious work of the Spirit in us.  It means that the faith-righteousness of justification is not personal but vicarious, not infused but imputed, not experiential but judicial, not psychological but legal, not our own but a righteousness alien to us and outside of us (iustitia alienum et extra nos), not earned but graciously given (sola gratia) through faith in Christ that is itself a gift of grace.  It means also in its declarative character that justification possesses an eschatological [study of last things] dimension, for it amounts to the divine verdict of the Eschaton being brought forward into the present time and rendered here and now concerning the believing sinner.” [pp. 742-743]

Praise God for the doctrine of justification and the gospel of Jesus Christ!  How freeing and amazing it is to know and believe that we are made right with God based not on what we do, but what Christ has done!

Check out these passages of Scripture for further study:

Genesis 15:1-6; Romans 3:21-26; 4:1-8, 18-25; 5:8-11, 18-21; 8:1, 28-30; 10:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 2:15-21


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