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.
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).
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.
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)
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.”
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.
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)
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.