The Illustrated Guide to Justification


C L O U D-3

I’ve been wanting to write this post for nearly a year now. In fact, the reason I chose the topic “31 Days of Belonging” was because I wanted to include a mini-series on Justification. Thinking through this topic has arguably been the most rewarding thing I’ve learned from the Bible in several years. I hope and pray it is true to the Scripture, and helpful to you. If you just want the pictures part, please feel free to scroll down past the introduction.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it is not true that all words are created equal. Some words are more important than others, and for people of faith, JUSTIFICATION is one of those words.

The early church, persecuted and condemned by the courts of Rome, clung to the truth that they were justified by the court of God.

1700 years later, the course of Western Civilization changed because of the reformation rallying cry of “justification by faith”.

Blood has been spilled over this issue. It’s important to understand it.

After three years at seminary, I thought I had a fairly good grip on what justification meant. I had studied church history and soteriology and (good grief!) even translated Romans from the original Greek into English. So when I started preparing a series of conference talks on the big words used to describe what Jesus accomplished on the cross (redemption, justification, adoption), I thought I would just be brushing up on my bible college notes. I could not have been more wrong.

In my studies, I discovered that in the dozen or so years since I finished seminary, some of my theological heroes have been fencing with ink over what justification means. NT Wright and John Piper, in particular, have both written books on the topic in the last few years: publicly, heatedly, passionately disagreeing with each other – and both appealing to the Bible for support. I was beginning to appreciate why my friend Dan Seitz had said he believed “justification was the biggest issue facing the church today.”

I hit the books. The conference date was coming up and I was panicking. When I read Piper, I totally understood what he was saying. But when I read Wright, I found myself nodding and underlining and agreeing with him too. Weeks of wrestling later, I found myself trying to wrangle these big ideas into sentences. I felt like I was trying to capture wild tigers running loose in my head. I labored with words as I labored with the Word.

I sifted through ideas, and landed up with a series of annotated illustrations which, to me, were an “aha!!!” moment in understanding. What follows is my attempt to understand what the Bible teaches about justification – incorporating both Piper’s insistence that it means our complete pardon by God due to the merits of Christ, and also Wright’s insistence that we explain justification with reference to the wider Biblical context, and particularly, with reference to Father Abraham, whose name appears in every New Testament passage dealing with justification.

Before we get to the pictures, there are two brief things to note:

1) Justification is a LEGAL word. It is the opposite of condemnation, one of two possible verdicts which can be given in a legal trial. When the Bible talks about justification, it is a courtroom image – where a contract (particularly, a relational contract, or COVENANT) is being adjudicated by God the judge.

2) Justification and righteousness are WORD BUDDIES. In both Hebrew and Greek, righteousness, justice, and justification are all different forms of the same word. It would be theologically correct (but linguistically awkward) to think of justification as “righteoussifying”, or righteousness as “being legally considered to be JUST, or exonerated, or declared to be in the right, by God”.

But now… on to the pictures.

-The Illustrated Guide to Justification-

Way back when, in a hot middle eastern land, God bound himself up in a relationship with a man named Abram. Just like marriage covenants are created by making vows, so God initiated a (wonderful, intimate) binding legal relationship by making vows to Abram. Renaming him Abraham, God vowed that he would bless Abraham: he would give him a land, many descendants, an honored name and a world impact. Most importantly, he promised himself to Abraham. “I am your very great reward,” God said (Genesis 12:1-3).

Genesis 15 tells us what Abraham’s profound response was: he believed God.

Justification1

Abraham believed God, and God “credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In other words: God JUSTIFIED Abraham, or gave him a legal stamp of approval.

Here is my attempt to depict what this relationship looked like: against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11 and the sin of the whole world, culminating in the tower of Babel, God created a sphere of blessing and started a new relationship with people. He would be Abraham’s God, and Abe would be his person. Abraham believed God (in other words, he had faith).

Justification2

Now when a contract is contested in court, the judge’s job is to determine whether the parties have performed their side of the contract. Each party is judged according to what they promised to do. If the court finds that they have performed properly, they would receive a verdict of “justified”. If they don’t, they would be “condemned”.

So at this point, if Abraham and God’s covenant (or contract relationship) was to be scrutinized, in order to be “justified”, each of them would need to keep their promises. God would need to keep his promises to bless Abraham, and Abraham had to believe it. And the verdict? Abraham was “justified by faith”. This does not mean that Abraham was sinless, but it does mean he was within the sphere of blessing. He was relating rightly to God, and was one of His people.

400 years later, God had a “vow renewal ceremony” with his people, this time at Mt Sinai with Moses and some angels officiating. This time, God was making a covenant with Abraham’s descendants (whom we call Israel). Exodus and Deuteronomy record God’s “I will” promises. Specifically, he promised to keep his promises to Abraham. He promised again to be their God, and have Israel be His people. And He gave them the law, to show them how to live.

This time, however, Israel made vows too. “We will do everything you say in the law,” they promised. As God’s people, Israel had to choose how they would behave in this relationship. If they were faithful and obeyed the house rules, things would go well for them and they would receive blessing upon blessing. (Just like in marriage, if you are faithful, you reap blessings!) However, if they were unfaithful to Him and rebelled, there would be sanctions and curses (to use the language of Deuteronomy.

Justification3

It is important to realize this about the covenant between God and Israel: he KNEW they were not perfect people, and so within the law He made provision for sins to be confessed, paid for and forgiven through the sacrificial system. The “sphere of blessing” included provision for dealing with sin. This is crucial because we often confuse “righteousness” with “sinlessness”, but they are not the same. Abraham wasn’t sinless. He sinned aplenty, but his heart was orineted towards God. Israel wasn’t sinless either. To say that you needed to be “sinless” to be justified (or found righteous) means that God set Israel up for failure from the start, which cannot be true.

To be found “righteous” or “justified”, Israel didn’t have to be sinless, but they did have to have their sins DEALT with. God gave them the substitutionary sacrificial system and called Israel to confess their sins and have FAITH (just like Abraham did), that their sins were dealt with. Sinful Israel could still, by faith, be in God’s “sphere of blessing”, and if that’s where they were then they could get God’s judicial stamp of approval, or justified. Being righteous doesn’t mean being sinless, it means being in a RIGHT-RELATIONSHIP according to the covenant (while that covenant provides for forgiveness).

Consider how Romans 4 explains David’s understanding of justification under the Mosaic Covenant:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;

blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:4-8 ESV)

justification4

The law given at the “vow renewal ceremony” highlighted one big problem: sin. Israel had hearts that were “prone to wander”: their sinful hearts were always pulling them away from God. The law put into words what already lurked beneath: their tendency was to drift away, to distrust and disbelieve God, and by walking towards the nations – they walked out of the sphere of blessing.  The Old Testament recounts God sending prophet after prophet with the message “Come back! Come back to me! Come back because I love you, and come back because if you move away from me your sins can’t and won’t be dealt with!” But Israel kept wandering.

What, then, shall we say of the “verdicts” on God and Israel’s promise-keeping on their covenant? The prayer on Nehemiah’s lips towards the end of Israel’s history is very revealing:

“You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. ” (Nehemiah 9:7-8)

“Nevertheless, Israel was disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.” (Nehemiah 9:26)

“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. (Nehemiah 9:32-33 ESV)

Verdict on Israel? Condemned. Unrighteous.

Verdict on God? Righteous. But…. uh oh. Here was a problem. God had a covenant conundrum.

To be found righteous according to the covenant, God had to keep ALL the promises he had made to Israel, which included a promises to:

1) BLESS Abraham’s descendants and the whole world through them (Genesis 12), and yet he had also promised to

2) PUNISH them for breaking the covenant.

What to do? What to do?

Well, the New Testament is very clear that the brilliant and wise way God kept his promise was by initiating a new covenant through Jesus, the promised Messiah. The original covenant had been with Abraham, the vow renewal with Abraham’s descendants, but the new covenant would be with Abraham’s descendant . Galatians 3 makes a big deal of pointing out that God had promised to bless the world through Abraham’s descendant (singular), not descendants (plural). Jesus, Abraham’s descendant, would live as the perfect, righteous and faithful Israelite. He would make vows back to God: “Here I am,” he said, “I have come to do your will.”

Justification5

Finally, there was perfect covenant performance. Jesus completely kept God’s covenant. He was completely faithful, completely obedience, completely sinless (thus earning ALL the blessings of the Mosaic covenant for doing it right). However, in his death he offered a full and perfect sacrifice for the sins of sinful people (thus paying for ALL the curses of the Mosaic covenant for sin).

So how did this covenant do in court?

Jesus – was declared completely righteous. He was justified. He checked all the boxes.

And God? was justified too, in that He kept EVERY promise he had made in the former covenants by fulfilling them in Jesus.

Jesus alone stood in and created a new “sphere of blessing” in the covenant he sealed with his blood. He ALONE was justified as the covenant keeper. He ALONE earned the right to be one of God’s people, and to have God be His God.

The good news of the gospel, though, is that while all of us by nature are in the blue zone of judgment for sin, if we have FAITH in Jesus, we will be “IN CHRIST”. By faith, we can literally move into Jesus’ sphere of blessing – NOT because of our own works, but because of Jesus. We can be legally declared to be “one of God’s people”, “justified”, “in the right with Him”, with our sins having been dealt with.

Justification6

Justification means more than just having our guilty verdicts removed. In light of the promises with Abraham, it includes our judicial pardon, but it also speaks to our inclusion in God’s people by faith – just as Abraham, David, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, Anna and Simeon were.

Consider the following verses:

Christ died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1Peter 3:18)

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

I understand the last two verses to be saying “see how God has solved the covenant conundrum!” God’s surprise ending in Jesus was not foreseen by Israel, but in hindsight the pattern was there all along (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”)

“For as many are the promises of God, in Him (that is, Jesus) they are YES!” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

justification7

No-one deserves to be in a covenant relationship with God. Abraham didn’t, Israel didn’t, you and I don’t. However, God wanted to be in a relationship with us, and made a way to do that through Christ. The pattern of how he would do it legally (through a covenant) was there from the beginning, and the pattern of how he would deal with sin (through a covenant) was foreshadowed too – but the final “ta daaaaa!” of his plan was only revealed in Jesus.

Justification means being legally declared to be right with God.

Sins forgiven. Included in God’s covenant. One of His people.

Always and forever, because of Jesus.

All it takes to be in God’s sphere of blessing is to believe in Jesus. Stand in the circle, friends. Stand in the circle. There’s nowhere better in the whole world (Romans 5:1-5).

This is day 8 of 31 Days of Belonging. Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some thoughts of the practical implications of justification: “If we belong to God, then what?” Stay tuned. 

29 thoughts on “The Illustrated Guide to Justification

  1. Wow Bronwyn – great explanatory post! The illustrations are very helpful. Thanks for the effort and sharing it with us. I am tired this evening, and want to re-read your post again tomorrow to absorb it in more detail.

    • Thanks Laura. I found the process of working out the illustrations so helpful for clarifying my own understanding, so I’m glad they can be helpful to others too 🙂

  2. What a great job you’ve done of explaining this concept. Thank you so much. Just what I needed today. (I wish I could’ve been at the conference to hear you talk about the other ‘big words’, too. I hope those are coming in future blog posts…?)
    And the other parts of the Belonging series have been excellent, too.

    • Hi tuija, thanks for your kind words! I was planning to write a bit more on the second talk (justification), but hadn’t planned to write up the other two talks at this stage. I believe they were all videographed though… Perhaps ask Bridget or Kathy at thousand hills if the videos could be made available?

  3. Thanks for tackling this conundrum. Just a couple of points of clarification come to mind: First, We must remember that the sacrifices of Leviticus i.e. the “sacrificial system” (the blood of bulls and goats) didn’t really ever “deal” with sin–as the writer of Hebrews points out. They only set the pattern (provided a picture of) of substitutionary atonement–if the sinner identified himself and his sin with the sacrificial victim–and obeyed, in faith, the protocols given by the Lord.
    We also must not forget that Jesus spoke much more about the Kingdom, or rule of God than he did about a justification promise. I can hardly imagine being in that circle of blessing with King Jesus if I “believe” in him but live a life of apathy and disregard for his wishes.

    • Hi Helen, thanks for commenting. I absolutely agree! Yes, the levitical system pointed forward to Jesus’ atonement: his was the only blood that actually paid for sin (part of why I made the final circle red, with solid lines on the outside to show that Jesus “sealed the deal” with his blood, whereas the other circles were beige with dotted lines). And yes, absolutely I believe that the kingdom of God was his primary message and announcement.

      The reason for this particular post was not that I thought it the most important issue in the scripture, but because it has been the one area where my understanding has grown the most lately. I did a series of talks on the different aspects of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross! unpacking the biblical images of redemption (he freed us from slavery to sin), justification (he secured a verdict of “belonging to god” for guilty people) and adoption (children of god). The fourth image which is frequently used in the NT to describe the cross is that of a sacrifice of atonement, or propitiation, but I only had three talks and kind of made reference to the sacrifice aspect in the first and third talk. I found that redemption and adoption were fairly well understood concepts, but there was a lot of confusion and disagreement on justification – hence the need for extra work.

      Thank you for the opportunity to clarify – I wholeheartedly agree with you 🙂

  4. Excellent post. God chose Israel to be His people out of all the nations of the world. At the same time, there is never a single indication in Scripture that He or Moses ever thought that Israel would live up to their end of the Mosaic Covenant (which was the charter for the nation), in spite of their promise to obey. I’m reading in Deuteronomy now, and that’s been impressed on me once again, see 29:4. In fact, Israel will never be what she ought to be until the blessings of the New Covenant come into play, Deuteronomy 30:5, 6. These verses cannot be dismissed as happening at the Return. See also Ezekiel 36:24-38. There is another big word that is the “flip-side” of justification: sanctification. It seems to me this word is even less understood than justification. It’s just as important. In fact, you can’t have one without the other. One of the other comments mentioned “disregard for his wishes.” That’s where sanctification comes in.

    • Thank you 🙂 redemption, sanctification, justification, propitiation, adoption…. All such RICH words pointing to the depth of the riches of what God has done for us in Christ. Hallelujah!

  5. Pingback: Us vs Them – the church edition | bronwyn's corner

  6. Pingback: 31 Days of Belonging | bronwyn's corner

  7. I just read Tim Keller’s Galatians For You this summer, and I think from reading and thinking about Galatians and the gospel and all these wonderful things you talked about in your post, I have grown more than I have in the last five years. I love that you were able to pull this together in a post. Well done.

  8. Wow. Wow. Wow. My mind is swirling … so good. I love how you mentioned near the end that the covenant was always there, always the plan, and in Jesus, God made a way for the covenant to be the once-and-for-all way for us to be not just in His sphere of blessing, but his sons and daughters and co-heirs with Christ! Wow.

  9. Pingback: Dear Mary, About your list…. | bronwyn's corner

  10. Pingback: Doing it Gangnam Style | bronwyn's corner

  11. Pingback: This is how I want to worship | bronwyn's corner

  12. Pingback: “I love Jesus but I don’t go to church” | bronwyn's corner

  13. Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings and commented:
    I’m reblogging this so I can have access to it whenever I want. It offers a Christian take on the relationship of justification to Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, and the New Covenant.

  14. You said : “All it takes ……is to believe in Jesus.”

    What essentially do I have to believe ?
    Is this a ‘once and done’ experience ?
    Will I have stepped outside the covenant if I renounce my faith ?
    Where does faithfulness and trust come into the process ?
    Is this condition of belief a voluntary response on my part or do I have to wait for it to be given me as a gift ?
    Do I receive this faith through the sacrament of baptism, as NTW believes ? (like circumcision)

    • Hi Gordon, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Thousands of pages have been written on the questions you raise, and I don’t presume to be able to speak completely or authoritatively on any of those, but my thoughts in brief are this:

      * The ‘gospel’ announcement which we need to believe in order for salvation is that Jesus Christ is Lord i.e. Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ (God’s appointed King), and that he is Lord (divine). Romans 10 says we need to believe this in our heart, and also be willing to proclaim it with our mouths: Jesus is God’s King, and he rose from the dead. I think it was this recognition of who Jesus was, in its bare form, which we see so profoundly illustrated in the conversation with the thief on the cross. He saw Jesus for who he was, and was welcomed into paradise.
      * As for is this a “once and done” experience – I would say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we make a commitment to God for the first time and it begins something new. No, in the sense that the sincerity of our original commitment is evidenced by a continuing commitment. Marriage strikes me as a good example of this: I meant my “I do” on the day I got married, but I show I meant it and live out the expression of this (sometimes terribly, sometimes better) in the years that follow. I love the perspective of our faith being “a long obedience in the same direction” in understanding this.
      * As for ‘voluntary belief’ vs ‘it being a gift’ – I believe it is both. But I am only responsible for my side of it. God is responsible for his work on his side. In as much as I understand the gospel message, it is my responsibility to choose Him, even though the scriptures say that He is choosing and willing it all from His perspective.
      * As for faith and baptism – I don’t believe we receive faith through the sacraments. I believe we express our faith through the sacraments, and as we do so we are in turn encouraged and strengthened. Is baptism required for faith? No. Is baptism faith-expressing and faith-building? Yes.

      I am sorry my answers are brief: I’m not quite sure how to approach these things in something as short as a comment. (Also, sometimes I’m not sure if people are asking because they are searching for answers, or if they want to scrutinize and judge how my answers compare with theirs). I mean for my reply to be helpful and faithful to Scripture. I hope and pray it is.

  15. Pingback: Me ‘n NT | bronwyn's corner

  16. Pingback: Ask Me: On Celebrating Conversion and Baptism | bronwyn's corner

Comments are closed.