Simply put, to justify is to declare righteous. Justification is an act of God whereby He pronounces a sinner to be righteous because of that sinner’s faith in Christ. According to one theologian, “the root idea in justification is the declaration of God, the righteous judge, that the man who believes in Christ, sinful though he may be, is righteous—is viewed as being righteous, because in Christ he has come into a righteous relationship with God” (Ladd, G. E., A Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974, p. 437).
Properly understood, justification has to do with God’s declaration about the sinner, not any change within the sinner. That is, justification, per se, does not make anyone holy; it simply declares him to be not guilty before God and therefore treated as holy. The actual change toward holiness in the sinner occurs with sanctification, which is related to justification but, for definition’s sake, distinct from it.
A key passage describing justification in relation to believers is Romans 3:21–26: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, . . . so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” Several important facts about justification are to be noted:
• Justification comes apart from the law; that is, we cannot earn justification through rule-keeping or our own good works.
• Justification is made possible in the sacrificial death of Christ; it is based on the shed blood of Christ.
• Justification is the free and gracious gift of God bestowed on those who receive by faith the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
• Justification demonstrates the righteousness of God.
Related to God’s justification of the sinner are several things:
1) The remission of the penalty of sin, which was death (Romans 3:23; 8:1; 1 Peter 2:24).
2) The restoration to God’s favor, which had been lost due to our sin (John 3:36). So, justification is more than an acquittal; it is full acceptance. We are now friends of God (James 2:23) and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).
3) The imputation of righteousness, which is the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to our account (Romans 4:5–8). We are declared to be righteous forensically (legally) because “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
(The preceding three points are adapted from Henry Thiessen’s Lectures in Systematic Theology, revised by Vernon Doerksen, Eerdmans, 1979, pp. 275–277).
We are justified, declared righteous, at the moment of our salvation. Jesus Christ finished the work required for our justification on the cross. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9). He was then “raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
The question arises, “Is justification just? If He is holy, how can God forgive a guilty sinner?” The answer is that justification does not excuse our sin, ignore our sin, or endorse our sin. Rather, our sin is fully punished, Christ having taken our penalty for us. He was our substitute (1 Peter 3:18). Because the wrath of God is satisfied in Christ (Isaiah 53:4–6), we are free from condemnation (Romans 8:1), and God remains both “fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, NLT).
Because God justifies us by grace through faith in Christ, we now have peace with God (Romans 5:1). Like Joshua the priest, we have been stripped of our “filthy clothes” (Zechariah 3:4), and, like the prodigal son in the parable, we are now clothed with “the best robe” (Luke 15:22). God the Father sees us as perfect and unblemished, and we are to be devoted “to doing what is good” (Titus 3:14).
Romans 5:18–19 in the Amplified Bible sums up the basis and result of justification: “So then as through one trespass [Adam’s sin] there resulted condemnation for all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For just as through one man’s disobedience [his failure to hear, his carelessness] the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one Man the many will be made righteous and acceptable to God and brought into right standing with Him.”