I once heard an old Methodist preacher say that nothing could be simpler than a definition of what it means to be justified. He said, “When I am justified, it is ‘ just-as-if-I’ed never sinned.’” Adding to that, justification is simply the state of a person who has been justified, and it is God alone who justifies those who belong to him.
In the Bible, God accomplishes the justification of those who belong to him in several different ways:
During the time of the Old Covenant, those who know and keep the law (predominately Jew’s, God’s Chosen People) are justified before God, and God pronounces them so. Those who have sinned under the law will be judged guilty by the law. In Romans 2:12, the apostle writes, “…it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
According to Romans 2:13, during this same period, “those who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law.” That is, those Gentiles who don’t know the law escape judgment by the law. This is so because it is the law which brings knowledge of sin. Where there is no law, there is no knowledge of sin, and where there is no knowledge of sin, there is no offense. Or is there? What about conscience? Can we sin against conscience? Most of us have been taught that conscience is relative to the society in which we live. Yes, but is that true when it comes to God? In Romans 1, St. Paul says that “Ever since the creation of the world (God’s) invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” His point is that those who worship idols made with human hands are without excuse, and people who are honest before themselves know it. Conscience can condemn, but it can also excuse. In Romans 2:14 Paul says that:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.
The coming of Christ ushers in a new era. In Rom. 3:20, the apostle writes that ”… no human being will be justified in (God’s) his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Numerous texts in Romans and Galatians go on to state St. Paul’s conviction that we are justified by faith, apart from works of the law.
Rom. 3:28 … we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.
Rom. 5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rom. 5:9 Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
Rom. 8:33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?
Rom. 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified.
In Romans 4:13, St. Paul even makes faith take precedence over the law when he says that “The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” Thus, Abraham is “the father of all who believe.” (Romans 4:11)
So, how does it work? What is the process through which we attain justification? First, we acknowledge that we are sinners. “No one is righteous, no, not one.” Then, according to Romans 10:9,10:
“9 if (we) confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart(s) that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. 10 For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.
Then we are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we take possession of it.” (Ephesians 1:13) Some say that baptism is necessary, as in Acts 2:38-39:
38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
When I have repented of my sins, confessed Christ, and received the Holy Spirit, I am justified. “It is just as if I’ed never sinned.”
Does this mean that I can continue in sin? No. As Paul has written in Romans 6:1-4:
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
That is why the apostle can say, “(Christ) was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25) It is the risen Christ who bestows the promised Holy Spirit, as in John 20, when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit directly on his disciples.
Of course, some have misunderstood justification. Some say, “Once saved, always saved,” and live just as badly as ever before their conversion. This prompted the response of the man we called James who wrote:
James 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, 23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.
Sam Shoemaker a 20th Century Episcopal pastor gave perspective to the argument between faith and works when he said, “It is not faith or works, but faith that works.”