The great bulwark of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification. Luther and his coadjutors fully preached justification through faith in Christ alone, apart from merit in him whose faith laid hold on Christ, or works done by him, or for him by others like himself. It was this truth proclaimed in the power of God that set thousands free from the chains of Romanism with its miserable counterfeits of God's truth. The same truth still needs to be made known in its simplicity among those who call themselves Protestants. Many who bear that name have quite departed from the Gospel of God, and expect salvation partly through Sacraments, partly by prayers, and partly through the merits of Christ. A right knowledge of man's relation to God and of God's way of justifying sinners will clear away the mists of human traditions and show the true foundation on which the believer stands.
Man's State Before God
Man is without righteousness in the sight of God. The Divine verdict is, "There is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10). If any man think he has earned for himself a righteousness by his rectitude or religion, God dispels the illusion by the words, "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). Human righteousness may be used by Satan to deceive its possessor and inflate him with pride, so that he refuses to submit himself unto "the righteousness of God" (Rom. 10:3), but he can never thereby be declared "just" before the Court of Heaven.
"How then can man be justified with God?" (Job 25:4) is the great question. Mark, it is not merely how he can be pardoned, but "justified" and not justified before men, but "with God!" A guilty criminal lying in his cell might be pardoned by the King or by his Government, but he could not be justified. To justify means to "reckon righteous," and if a criminal who had been proved "guilty" at the bar of justice was to be reckoned righteous, whoever did it would be morally a partaker of his crime. How then can man be made righteous with God? Clearly not in his own personal righteousness, for, as we have already seen of this he has none. Neither can he reclaim himself by keeping fragments of a broken law. Yet, strange to say, many are thus seeking to earn a righteousness in which they hope God will accept them, and in some way, not very clearly defined, make up what they lack, by His mercy, or by Christ's obedience for them, thrown into the balance. There is no such way of righteousness as this: it is a delusion. God, as a Holy Judge, presiding in His courts, has declared the sinner "guilty." The sentence upon his guilt is death.
And sin's penalty has thus been borne. By whom? The answer is, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). "Not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). The gift of Christ is the proof that "God is love"; the death of Christ is the witness that God is just.
The Just Dies for the Unjust
"Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (1 Pet. 3:18). It was not the innocent dying for the guilty, as is sometimes said, but the Just One charged with the sins of the unjust. When God imputed sin to Christ He stood so completely identified with it, that, as it is written, "He made Him to be sin for us" (2 Cor. 5:21).
And when God imputes righteousness to the believing sinner, he stands so completely identified with it that the Word of God declares he is made "the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21). Personally, Christ had no sin, yet He was reckoned "to be sin"; personally, the believer has no righteousness, yet he is reckoned righteous "in Him." That is what the Apostle refers to when he speaks of the man to whom "God imputeth righteousness without works" (Rom. 4:6).
God the Justifier
"It is God that justifieth" (Rom. 8:33). This is the first great link in the chain. The Gospel is the "Gospel of God" (Rom. 1:1). The righteousness that it reveals, is "the righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17). Man has had his day: he has been under trial, only to prove how unable he is to meet the demands made upon him. The law claimed righteousness; he rendered transgression, so that by the deeds of the law no flesh can be justified in God's sight (Rom. 3:20). Now God Himself comes forth to declare His own righteousness. This he does in the Cross of Christ. By the work of the Cross, God can be just, and yet the Justifier of the believing sinner. His righteousness in remitting the sins of men of faith in ages past who lived and died before the Cross (Rom. 3:25), and in justifying the ungodly who now believe (Rom. 4:5), is fully declared. The just Judge is the Justifier! The righteous God proclaims the sinner just!
Justified by Grace
"Being justified freely by his grace" (Rom. 3:24). It is without cause, in spite of what the sinner is. He does not require to find some merit as his title, else grace would be no more grace. He is not asked to bring himself up to a certain condition of rectitude or goodness, or to reach certain stages of contrition and repentance, before he can come within the circle of its efficacy. God justifies the "ungodly" (Rom. 4:5). The language of the sinner coming to the God of grace for justification is "Just as I am."
Justified by Blood
"Being now justified by His blood" (Rom. 5:9). The death of Christ is the procuring cause of the sinner's justification. The blood of Christ is the witness that God's claims have all been met. Sin must be atoned for by blood, else it must stand a barrier between the sinner and his God. Righteousness must be satisfied before grace can flow. In the Cross this has been done. There "mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Ps. 85:10). "Grace reigns," but not only so, but "through righteousness" (Rom. 5:21). God will fill His holy Heaven with those who had been "unrighteous" and "unjust" on earth, and yet His throne will be established in righteousness. The once slain Lamb in "the midst of that throne" is at once the vindication of God's righteousness and the sinners' title to be there.
Justified by Resurrection
"Raised again for our justification." (Rom. 4:25). The resurrection of Christ is the witness that His death met in full the demands of Divine justice. It is God's seal of acceptance upon the work of the Cross. To the believer, it is the sign of his discharge in full. Had there been one atom unfinished, one mite unpaid, our Surety could not have gone free. But free He is. As we sing—
"And God released our Surety
To show the work was done;
And Jesus' resurrection
Declared the victory won."
Justified by Faith
"Being justified by faith, we have peace with God" (Rom. 5:1). If the work of the Cross was for all, if grace reigns toward all, if the Gospel's message is unto "every creature," how, it may be asked, is justification limited to certain and not possessed by all? The answer is, "All that believe are justified" (Acts 13:39). But all do not believe. Some receive the Saviour, others reject Him. Some believe the testimony of God, and some "believe not" (Acts 28:24). It is unto all, but only "upon all them that believe" (Rom. 3:22). If he does perish, the fault will be his own, not God's.
Justified from Sin
"He that is dead is freed [margin, justified] from sin" (Rom. 6:7). Sin is here personified. The sinner is a slave, sin is his master. The slave dies—judicially, of course, in the person of his Substitute and through death he is set free from sin's slavery. A slave-owner can claim service from his slave up to the hour of death, but not beyond it. Thus the believer righteously escapes from sin's dominion and passes from its service. In the power of a new life received from Christ risen, he yields himself to the service of God and his members as instruments of righteousness.
Justification of Life
"Unto justification of life" (Rom. 5:18). Discharged from sin's penalty by Christ's death, the believer becomes a sharer with Christ in life beyond the grave. A new life is imparted to him; a new man is created in him. In this new life he serves God, as in the old he served sin. The new man is "created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:24). It is the germ of his new spiritual being yet to be manifested in glory in the image of the Lord. Meanwhile here on earth, the new life is manifested in his mortal body, and the new man is displayed in a walk of practical righteousness and holiness.
Justified by Works
"By works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (Jas 2:24). There is no contradiction here of what the Epistle to the Romans teaches. Paul and James are not opponents. "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness," is Paul's statement. "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up his son upon the altar?" is James' question. He does not suggest that Paul had erred. On the contrary, he adds, "And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness" (Jas. 2:23). Justification by works is the manward side; justification by faith the Godward. Men cannot see each other's faith: they can only see that which is outward. Works are the outward manifestation of faith. Justified by faith before God; justified by works before men. Works are the evidence that faith is present. God alone knows the heart. He knows whether or not man has "with the heart believed unto righteousness" (Rom. 10:10). We must look for the evidence of faith which is to be seen in works. Thus the Apostle James' statement is the safeguard against the false profession of such as might "say" that they had faith. They must "show" it by their works. And thus the grace that saves the sinner becomes the teacher of the saint, and his first lessons are, "that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world" (Tit. 2:12). Such practical righteousness should be looked for and expected, in all who bear the name of Christ. Especially is this necessary in a day of easy-going profession like ours.
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Foundation Truths of the Gospel by John Ritchie. 2nd ed. Kilmarnock: Office of "The Believer's Magazine," .
Selections from Foundation Truth of the Gospel