Saturday, July 2, 2011

What Is Justification ... It’s Forgiveness, Right?

What does the word, "justification" mean? That's actually a really important question.

Think about it: the Bible says:
  • It was possible to be justified by the Law of Moses. Acts 13:39.
  • We are justified by faith. Romans 3:28.
  • We are justified by Christ’s blood. Romans 5:9.
  • Abraham was not justified by works. Romans 4:2.
  • But actually, he was justified by works. James 2:21. (So was Rahab, vs. 25.)
  • Jesus was justified. 1Timothy 3:16.
Now if I’m foggy as to exactly what “justification” means, these verses will might just seem incomprehensible and even contradictory!

It’s Forgiveness, Right?

We often confuse “justification” with “forgiveness”. This is easy to do because “all have sinned”. That means that in order for God to justify us, He must first forgive us.
There’s a well-known saying: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” And smoke and fire very much go together, just as justification and forgiveness do.
But we know that smoke isn’t fire and fire isn’t smoke. In the same way, we need to realize that justification isn’t forgiveness and forgiveness isn’t justification. If we want to understand what the Bible is saying about Justification, it is important to keep the definition of the word clear in our minds.

Declared Righteous

Did you ever consider that it is possible to be justified without being forgiven? This is because the word “justify” means to be “declared righteous”.
Here’s an example of justification happening without forgiveness:
Suppose you were falsely accused of committing a crime.You don’t need to be forgiven when you are falsely accused—but you do need to be “justified”—“declared righteous”.
And you would be justified—declared righteous—when it was proved that your claims of innocence were true—when it was declared that you really didn’t do it!
Clarifying that justification and forgiveness are two different things helps us understand verses such as James 2:21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”
  • When Abraham laid Isaac on the altar, did that atone for his sin—did it provide forgiveness for him?
  • Or did his works declare his righteousness?


We’ve heard the word justification so much in connection with religion, and forgiveness, that it’s easy to loose track of its meaning. And since this word is used more than 60 times in the Bible, a distorted definition of justification can lead to a distorted view of a good portion of the Bible. Guess who likes that . . . ?

Who Justifies?

Did you know that you can be justified by your friends? This is the point of “character witnesses” in trials. People who declare that the defendant is righteous and that he wouldn’t have done the thing he’s accused of.
You can justify yourself. People try to do this all the time. “I’m OK.” “I did my best.” Of course this is almost always hypocritical.
A being who has never broken the law can also be justified by the law. It can declare that he is righteous. A person could also seek to be righteous before God by keeping the letter of the law. This is what Paul referred to when he wrote, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified [i.e. seeking to be declared righteous] by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” Galatians 5:4.


Works can justify us. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 5:16. And James spends some time discussing this in James 2.


But since we have sinned, the only justification that is worth anything to us is when God declares us righteous. Because when God says “[Your name here] is righteous”, He cannot lie (Titus 1:2), and the word goes forth from His mouth, and it accomplishes what He said—His saying so makes you righteous. (Isaiah 55:11).

Another Look

Let’s look at these verses again, applying the definition of justification:

  • It was possible to be justified by the Law of Moses. Acts 13:39.
    • As people participated in the symbolism of the sacrificial services (described and detailed in the Law of Moses), Christ declared them righteous.
  • We are justified by faith. Romans 3:28.
    • The Word of God says, “If we confess our sins He . . . will cleans us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. Jesus says, “all things are possible to Him that believes.” And what my faith takes Him up on that and says, “I have confessed my sins, His Word says I am declared righteous”, it is true!
  • We are justified by Christ’s blood. Romans 5:9.
    • If you break the law, you must suffer the penalty. Once you have paid the price, you are righteous again. In our case, the law says “the wages of sin is death”. Christ died—He shed His blood—so that we could be declared righteous.
  • Abraham was not justified by works. Romans 4:2.
    • Abraham, like everyone else, sinned, and no amount of obedience (works) would enable the law to say he was righteous.
  • But actually, he was justified by works. James 2:21. (So was Rahab, vs. 25.)
    • Abraham had confessed his sin. He “believed God” and was declared righteous through grace. (Galatians 3:6). God had declared him righteous—thus making him righteous. And his works declared that this had happened when he “offered Isaac his son upon the altar”.
  • Jesus was justified. 1Timothy 3:16.
    • The Spirit said, “And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.” 1 John 3:5. Truly declaring that Jesus is righteous!


If we want to understand what the Bible teaches about justification, we need to remember that “justify” does not mean “forgive”, it simply means to be “declared righteous”.


Schane Johnson said...

I like your study, but I have a couple questions about it. I read this quote this morning: “Pardon and justification are one and the same thing." MS 21, 1891.
Read the context, and let me know what you think!
God bless,

Tony Evert said...

Saying that pardon and justification are one and the same thing does not contradict the broad definition of justification, and it is not wrong when used in this way: The context of MS21 is dealing with conversion, and the point in this passage was to define “conversion”. When it comes to conversion of a sinner, pardon and being “declared righteous” are one and the same thing. We, as sinners, must be pardoned in order to be “declared righteous/justified”—it cannot be any other way! You could correctly read this to say, pardon is justification, while noting that strictly speaking, justification is not necessarily pardon. This single statement gives a partial, but very practical definition of justification is appropriate in the message of this passage: “Through faith, the believer passes from the position of a rebel, a child of sin and Satan, to the position of a loyal subject of Christ Jesus, not because of an inherent goodness, but because Christ receives him as His child by adoption.”

But Biblically speaking, justification must be distinct from forgiveness. The broader definition of justification is seen in Faith I Live By, page 112: “The great work that is wrought for the sinner who is spotted and stained by evil is the work of justification. By Him who speaketh truth he is declared righteous. The Lord imputes unto the believer the righteousness of Christ and pronounces him righteous before the universe.”

This distinction between forgiveness and justification in the Bible is clear because it was impossible for Abraham’s works, when he offered Isaac on the altar, to pardon him–they justified him by declaring him righteous. And Jesus absolutely was not “forgiven” when He was “justified” (1 Timothy 3:16). Instead the Spirit justified Him by declaring Him to be righteous, by declaring that He had never sinned, not even by a thought.

When reading the New Testament, keeping this distinction in mind makes a whole lot of things–a whole lot clearer.

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