"Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:24)
Perhaps the most important fact revealed in Holy Scripture is the one which men most presumptuously ignore, the fact that God is just. "Justice and truth are the habitation of his throne." It is not possible for us to understand the grace of God, the judgment of God, or the work of Christ until we have some understanding of the justice of God.
Because the Lord our God is just, he must always deal with men upon the grounds of strict justice. The justice of God is the rectitude and righteousness of his character, that which compels him to deal with all of his creatures in strict accordance with their deserts. Justice and holiness are as essential to the character of God as love and mercy. God can no more put aside his justice in his dealings with men than he can put aside love from his character. Because God is just, the only way he can save a guilty sinner, the only way he can bring a sinner into an eternal union of life with himself, is if he can make the sinner guiltless and sinless in the eyes of his own law and justice.
This act of God's matchless grace, by which he declares men to be guiltless and sinless, is what the apostle Paul calls "justification". Justification is a legal term. It means that God declares chosen, redeemed sinners guiltless, sinless, and perfectly righteous before his law. And when God declares that a person is guiltless and sinless, perfectly righteousness before him, that person really is, in the eyes of God, perfectly righteous. Our righteousness before God is not just a merciful supposition. It is a blessed reality in Christ. Every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is truly justified, perfectly righteous in the sight of God.
But how is this justification accomplished? This is the great question of the ages. "How can a man be justified with God? Or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?" (Job 25:4). How can God be just and yet justify the ungodly? Find the answer to that question and you have learned the gospel. If you have not found the answer to that question, you do not yet know the gospel.
Because God is holy, just, and true, he demands an infinite satisfaction for sin. No man can ever be saved until he has suffered the just penalty of the law due unto his sins, so that his crimes and offences against the law of God no longer exist in the eyes of the law. God is as good as his word. And he said, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." The Lord forbade Adam to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying, "for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." No sooner did Adam eat of that tree than he and all his race died. When our father Adam (our divinely appointed federal head and representative) died, we all died spiritually. We began to die physically. And we came under the curse of death eternally. Eternal death in hell is the sentence of man's sin against God, because mortal man can never make an infinite satisfaction for sin.
Not only does God require an infinite satisfaction for sin; he also requires of man perfect righteousness. No man will ever enter into heaven, in the eternal bliss of fellowship with God, no man will ever be accepted in God's presence, no man will ever be brought into union with the eternal God, until he is perfectly holy and righteous, even as God himself. The Holy Lord God says, "Be ye holy, for I am holy." He says, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).
God requires total, absolute perfection. He will accept no one who is not perfect in holiness. Unless we render unto him a perfection of heart, perfection of thought, and perfection of life, with never so much as one deviation from absolute holiness, none of us shall ever see his face. If God ever accepted, delighted in, and was satisfied with anything less than absolute perfection, he would cease to be God.
Is man therefore without hope? God requires an infinite satisfaction for sin. We cannot give it. God demands absolute perfection. We cannot perform it. Are we all hopelessly doomed? Must we all perish? Is there no hope for fallen man? Blessed be God, there is hope for sinners! He says, "I have laid help upon one that is mighty." The Lord God has appointed One in whom "mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other."
This is the good news of the gospel. God has set forth his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as our Substitute and Representative. As our Substitute, Christ has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, putting away our sins, bringing in an everlasting righteousness, and accomplishing our justification. The Lord Jesus Christ has taken upon himself our nature. He is the God-man. The Son of God rendered unto God the perfection and righteousness, which God required of men. Our Lord Jesus Christ made an infinite satisfaction for sin, by pouring out his life's blood unto death at Calvary. All that he did, he did as the Representative and Substitute of God's elect; and all that he has done for us, we have done in him. Every true believer has both rendered perfect righteousness to God and made an infinite satisfaction for his sin in the Person of our all glorious Christ. Just as we sinned and died in the first substitute man (Adam - Romans 5:12), so we have obeyed God and become righteous by the second and last substitute Man (the Lord Jesus Christ - Romans 5:18-19).
As the result of Christ's finished work as our Representative and Substitute, it is a perfectly just thing for God to justify all who believe on him. In saving our souls and bringing us to heaven, the Lord God deals with us in exact accordance with justice. He gives us that which, in Christ, we deserve. The fact is, justice cannot allow one of those to perish for whom Christ lived and died and rose again.
In this study, we will see that the Scriptures declare that God's elect are justified in four ways. If we are justified, we are justified by the decree of God the Father in eternity, by the death of God the Son at Calvary, by the declaration of God the Holy Spirit in conversion, and by the display of good works before men.
The Decree of God
First, our Justification was accomplished by the decree of God the Father in eternity. In the mind and purpose of God all his elect were justified from eternity. Our justification was actually accomplished by God's sovereign purpose of grace in eternal predestination before the worlds were made. This is not a matter of speculation or hair-splitting theological precision, but a matter of unmistakable revelation. Read it for yourself in the Book of God, "Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." (Rom. 8:30).
Our justification did not commence in time, but in eternity. Paul, speaking of God's eternal decree of predestination, here declares that all of God's elect were justified in his eternal purpose of grace. As John Gill put it, "God's will to elect is the election of his people; so also his will to justify them, is the justification of them." God's act of justification is entirely an act of his grace. It is God accounting and constituting us righteous, through the righteousness of his Son. From all eternity, God has looked upon his Son as the Substitute of his elect, and looking upon us in Christ, we are, and always have been, righteous in his sight.
In the mind and purpose of God, Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Isaiah 53 is commonly read as a prophecy of our Savior's death at Calvary; and it certainly is that. Yet, the passage speaks of that which was already done long before our Savior's incarnation. God the Father set up his Son as our Surety, our Substitute, and our Redeemer, before the world began, as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," as that One in whom he delighted, and whose "delights were with the sons of men" from eternity (Pro. 8:30-31). As such, in his own mind, God the Father looked upon Christ his Son as having been slain for us from eternity. As Abraham sacrificed Isaac in the purpose and determination of his heart Gen. 22:12), so our heavenly Father sacrificed his beloved Son and received his sacrifice for his people before the world began, making us "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6). Because God our Father looked upon Christ as one already sacrificed for us before the world was, all the blessings of grace were given to us in him (Eph. 1:3-7; 2 Tim. 1:9). Being accepted of God in Christ from eternity, we were granted grace, redemption, forgiveness, justification, and sanctification in Christ before the worlds were made.
Thomas Goodwin wrote - "We may say of all spiritual blessings in Christ what is said of Christ himself, that 'his goings forth are from everlasting.' In Christ we are blessed with all spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:3). As we are blessed with all others, so with this also, that we were justified then in Christ."
Two facts compel us to look upon justification as an eternal act of God.
1. Had it not been for the fact that God looked upon his elect as being righteous and justified in Christ from eternity, he would have destroyed our race as soon as Adam sinned. God spared Adam and all the human race the full execution of the wrath threatened upon him, because there was in Adam's seed and elect race who must be saved. As God spared Sodom until Lot was delivered from the city, so God spares this world for the sake of his elect who must be saved (2 Pet. 3:9).
2. The Old Testament saints were justified by Christ, just as we are today, in exactly the same way and for the same reason. Their justification was just as full, complete, and perfect as ours (Heb. 9:15, 22; Rom. 3:25). All true believers were eternally justified in the purpose of God.
The Death of Christ
Second, we are justified by the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, at Calvary (Rom. 3:24-26). Though he is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, our Savior was also slain in time for the redemption of our souls. And though God's elect were justified by his sovereign decree in eternal predestination, we were also justified by the precious shed blood of God's dear Son at Calvary.
The Bible does not teach that justification was merely provided, or made possible by the death of Christ. The Bible declares that justification was accomplished at Calvary. If it was merely provided or made possible for us, but is not accomplished until we believe, then our faith would be as much the cause of justification as the purpose of God and the sacrifice of Christ. But that is not the case. The Holy Spirit tells us plainly that when Christ died, those for whom he died were justified (Rom. 3:24-26; 4:25).
C.H. Spurgeon understood this. He said, "I must hold that, in the moment when Jesus Christ paid my debts, my debts were canceled; in the hour when he worked out for me a perfect righteousness it was imputed to me; and therefore, I may, as a believer, say I was complete in Christ before I was born, accepted in Jesus, even as Levi was blessed in the loins of Abraham."
When the Scriptures declare that we are justified by the faith of Christ, or by faith in Christ, the meaning is not that our faith justifies us, but rather that Christ, the Object of our faith, justifies us. We are not justified by our act of faith in him, but by his faithful obedience to God for us as our Representative. Faith receives the blessedness of peace with God as the result of justification. It is written, Christ "was delivered for (because of) our offenses, and was raised again for (because of) our justification. Therefore being justified, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 4:25-5:1).
In his life of obedience to the law and will of God, the Lord Jesus Christ worked out a perfect righteousness for us. In him all God's elect have perfectly and fully obeyed God's holy law (Dan. 9:24; Jer. 23:6; 33:16; 1 Cor. 1:30). In his death at Calvary, all for whom he died died, fully satisfying the demands of God's law and justice against us for sin (Gal. 3:13; 2:20; Rom. 6:6-7; 8:1).
Since our Redeemer is both God and man in one Glorious Person, all that he has done is of infinite value for all who trust him. He has effectually accomplished the eternal justification of his people. He has obtained eternal redemption for us (Heb. 9:12). He has put away the sins of his people (Col. 2:13-15; Heb. 9:26). He has perfected forever those who were set apart as the objects of his grace (Heb. 10:14).
Near, so very near to God, Nearer I cannot be,
For in the Person of his Son, I'm as near as He.
In thy Surety thou art free, His dear hands were pierced for thee:
With His spotless garments on, Holy as the Holy One.
This is complete, perfect justification. The law can require no more of us than perfect righteousness and infinite satisfaction (Eph. 2:4-6).
Complete atonement Thou hast made, And to the utmost farthing paid,
Whate'er Thy people owed. Nor can God's wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness, And sprinkled with Thy blood.
If Thou hast my discharge procured, And freely in my room endured,
The whole of wrath divine: Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety's hand, And then again at mine.
We were eternally justified by the decree of God the Father before the world began. And we were justified by the death of God the Son at Calvary. By virtue of, and upon the merits of, the life and death of Christ as our Substitute, God is both just and the Justifier of all who believe on his Son. Now, in perfect consistency with his justice, God forgives all the sins of all his people. "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." In Christ, God both punishes and saves the believing sinner.
The Declaration of the Holy Spirit
Third, every true believer is justified by the declaration of God the Holy Spirit in conversion (Rom. 4:25-5:1). When God the Holy Spirit regenerates the sinner, giving him life and faith in Christ, as that sinner looks to Christ alone as his Savior and Redeemer, the blessed Spirit sprinkles the blood of Christ upon the conscience and speaks like a bailiff reading the verdict in court -- "JUSTIFIED!" Thus every believing sinner receives justification by faith in Christ.
Christ has justified us by his great sin-atoning sacrifice; and all who believe on him as Lord and Savior receive the many benefits of his finished work. One of those many benefits which we receive by faith in him is justification.
Faith does not cause God to justify us. The obedience of Christ has done that. But faith, resting upon Christ alone as Savior, obtains peace with God, even the peace of perfect, complete justification. Faith does not merit justification with God; but faith receives justification. Faith is not the basis upon which men are justified; but faith is the instrument by which justification is received.
Faith is essential; but it is not meritorious. Faith receives Christ; but it does not merit Christ. Faith receives the forgiveness of sin; but it does not merit forgiveness. Faith receives grace; but it does not merit grace. Faith receives justification; but it does not merit justification.
We were justified in the court of heaven by the decree of God the Father and by the death of God the Son. Then, in the experience of grace, we are justified in the court of conscience by the declaration of God the Holy Spirit.
The Display of Works
Fourth, all who know Christ, in the experience of grace, are justified by the display of good works before men (James 2:14-26). Yes, there is a sense in which we are justified by works, not before God, but before men. We justify our profession of faith in Christ by our works. Believers do not show their faith by creeds, confessions, and catechisms, but by their conduct. This is what the Holy Spirit teaches us in James 2:14-26.
James and Paul are not opposed to each other. In Romans Paul shows us the accomplishment of justification. James shows us the evidence of justification. If a person is a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, he will justify his faith and prove its reality by works of righteous obedience to God, even as Abraham did. Any faith that does not produce obedience to God is a false faith, a demonic delusion. It is not the faith of God's elect. Free grace is not opposed to good works. Free grace promotes good works (Tit. 3:4-8, 14).
What are those works that justify our professed faith before men? What are those works that prove the reality of our profession? The Holy Spirit describes them in the Book of James in a fourfold manner.
1. Good works are works of patient submission to the will of God (James 1:2-3).
2. Good works are works of genuine love toward the people of God (James 2:15-16). If we love each other, we bear one another's burdens, weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. We provide for, care for, protect, and forgive those who are the objects of our love.
3. Good works are works of faithful obedience to the Word of God (James 2:21-23). Believers bow to the will of God in providence and obey the revealed will of God in Scripture.
4. Good works are works of self-denial and sacrifice for the glory of God (James 2:23-25).
Every believer is eternally justified in the purpose of God by the decree of God the Father. All of God's elect were fully justified in time at Calvary by the death of God the Son. Every believer receives complete justification by faith in Christ, in the experience of grace, by the declaration of God the Holy Spirit in conversion. Every true believer is justified before men by the display of good works. Our justification is an eternal act of God, accomplished at Calvary, received by faith, and proved by works.