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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Forensic Justification

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. John 5:24NKJV

Question 73 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?” It gives the answer, “Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, not as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.” Last time we examined this question we saw how faith brings about our justification: that faith is the God-given instrument by which we receive justification. Today we consider the nature of our justified status. Here we will look at what Justification means from God’s perspective.

Martin Luther asserted that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls. If Luther was right that means that this doctrine is the article on which each one of us, as members of the church, stands or falls. The doctrine of justification answers the question how a sinner can be acceptable in the sight of a holy God. As we saw last time the moment a sinner trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation, at that moment the sinner is forever justified in the sight of God. The Scripture at the head of this article makes this clear. Jesus begins speaking with the words, “Amen, amen,” meaning “Truly, truly,” or even “It is true, it is true.” The New King James translates these two identical words “Most assuredly” to try to express to us today the sense of certainty our Lord’s speech would have conveyed to His audience. We should understand Jesus to be saying that whatever follows these two words is true beyond the shadow of a doubt.

The statement Jesus then makes of which he wants us to have absolute assurance is that a certain group of people – those who hear and believe Him – have lost a certain condition or quality which they formerly possessed, and have gained a new condition or quality, which previously they did not possess. The distinguishing feature of this group is that they hear and believe in Jesus. This hearing and believing is the sole and sufficient cause of their losing an old condition or quality and gaining a new one. The old condition that the believer no longer has is (spiritual) death, and the new one he has gained is everlasting life. This change of quality or condition is expressed by the perfect tense of the Greek verb. The perfect tense describes an action that is completed in the past but its effects continue into the future. The English translation captures this meaning in the words “has passed.” The believer has passed from death to life. Spiritually he was dead towards God and the godly life, now he is alive to them. Furthermore, the movement is complete. It is finished. It concluded in the past. The effects of this completed action continue into the future: the formerly dead believer is now and will continue to be alive. The result of this new condition is that the living believer will not come into judgment. He will not be put on trial and condemned by God on account of his sins. He has right now and will continue to have, not merely life, but everlasting life.

We have previously seen that faith is the sole instrument for receiving God’s justification of the sinner. Likewise, we have recognized the sole basis for God’s justification is not any of the works or even the faith of the believer but it is only the righteousness of Christ. In justifying a sinner God does not make him righteous but He declares him to be righteous for Christ’s sake. We have examined the instantaneous nature of God’s action in justification: that the very moment the sinner believes God declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Christ imputed to the sinner through his faith, that he is “not guilty but righteous.” Thus far in today’s lesson we have seen the effects of that justification to the sinner: he has passed from death to life so that he will not be condemned in the coming judgment. The believing sinner has, right now, everlasting life. This great change of condition given to the believer on account of the grace of God and the righteousness of Christ is not a change of character. In regeneration we receive a new character, but in justification what occurs is that God legally declares the sinner’s status before Him as having changed. Justification is a forensic declaration. It declares the sinner’s legal status before God as just or righteous. In and of himself the sinner is still a sinner, he would still be liable to God’s wrath were he judged on the basis of his character and works. But in justification the judgment is pronounced, and that judgment is “righteous.” This is why the believing sinner “shall not come into judgment.” By God’s legal declaration, by God’s forensic justification, his judgment has been pronounced. The trial is over, the verdict is in. If you are a believer in Christ you “have been justified” (Rom. 5:1). Therefore, you have right now everlasting life!


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