Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Act of Justification
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly,
his faith is accounted for righteousness
Romans 4:5 NKJV
Question 70 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “What is justification?” It gives the answer, “Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.” Last week we considered the ongoing communion that believers have with Jesus Christ. This week we begin to examine the doctrine of justification.
I love the directness of today’s question, “What is justification?” In our anti-intellectual, and it’s-only-important-if-it-helps-my-body-or-augments-my-life-experience age, objective questions that deal with eternal truths are perceived to have little relevance. People hear us talking about “justification” and they are lost, not understanding what we are saying or why we are saying it. The necessary foundation for the question of justification is what all men know by nature but suppress in unrighteousness (see Rom. 1:18): that mankind has been created in the image of God, and is accountable to keep His moral law perfectly. Yet we daily sin against Him in thought, word, and deed. How will we stand before Him when He calls us to account? That is, how will we avoid the condemnation that we justly deserve from a holy God on account of our sins? This most important question is what the doctrine of justification answers.
Thus, the first phrase of the Catechism’s definition of justification states that “justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners.” If we were not sinners, but righteous; then we could join in our world’s oblivion towards the doctrine of justification. For by definition if we were righteous, we would be justified and acceptable to the holy God who will judge the world in righteousness. Perhaps the reason why the world today has so little interest in the doctrine of justification is because the vast majority of churches have so little interest in preaching the doctrine of sin! In the Gospel, justification is for sinners. Therefore, unless or until we are convinced that we are sinners we will not see why we should be concerned with this most foundational subject.
Notice also that justification is “an act” of God’s free grace. Throughout Scripture, the concept of justification is always presented as a judgment or verdict given in a moment: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt.11:19); “And when all the people heard Him… they justified God” (Luke 7:29); “[Elihu’s] wrath was aroused because [Job] justified himself rather than God” (Job 32:2); “Let them bring out their witnesses, that they may be justified” (Isa. 43:9); “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Luke 12:37). In Scripture, justification is an act, a verdict, a sentence immediately given or understood. Thus, to hold that a person can be a little bit or partially justified would be like affirming one could be a little bit or partially pregnant!
Furthermore, justification is the language of the courtroom. In a trial once all the evidence is heard and all the witnesses have spoken, the accused is either justified or condemned. But since the God of all things is the omniscient and omnipresent judge, every human being is currently either in a state of justification or condemnation before Him. There is no middle ground. There are no facts that need to be brought out or witnesses that need to be heard. God sees and knows all things, and since all human beings owe him perfect and perpetual obedience at all times, the judgment is already rendered (John 3:18). We are all already guilty before Him, how then can we hope to stand before Him when it is time to carry out the sentence?
The answer to this question is why the doctrine of justification is so important. The Covenant of Grace, progressively revealed throughout Scripture and culminating in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, tells us that there is a way for guilty sinners to not only avoid being justly condemned before God, but to actually enjoy His favor and reward in an eternally exonerating sentence of “justified.” In the doctrine of justification we learn the Biblical truth that in one momentary act, the perfect judge of the universe pronounces those who are in and of themselves sinners to be righteous in His sight! As the Scripture above declares, God justifies the ungodly. How He does that we’ll look at, Lord willing, next week!