By Dr. Herbert Samworth
In the midst of a dialogue with his friends as he sorted through what had taken place in his life, Job uttered these words, “But how can a man be right with God?” (Job 9:2). They may be the most poignant words that have ever been spoken because they state the great problem of mankind. Should one would take all of life and reduce it to its bare essentials, this is the question that demands a response.
The asking of that question reveals much about the one who spoke it. Job stated that he did believe in God and that a right relationship with him was the most important thing in life. Religion and philosophy have expended a great deal of time and words attempting to answer this question. However, we will go directly to the book that provides the answer: the Bible, the Word of the living God.
This book tells us that all men, by virtue of being created in the image of God, stand in a relationship of accountability with God. While not all people would admit this, nevertheless, it is true. By living in God’s world, men stand before the God Who created it. A refusal to acknowledge this responsibility does not change it at all. This is reality, things as they truly are.
Although all men are accountable to God this does not mean that their conduct meets God’s approval. It is a lamentable fact that the majority of the world’s population refuses to acknowledge God in a manner that pleases Him. How can we define the nature of man’s accountability to God? The Bible tells us that this is a dual accountability: legal and moral. Man is required to obey God’s law and man is required to love God with all of his heart, mind, will and soul.
The Bible reveals to us that, due to sin, man has failed to satisfy either of these two requirements. In the legal sphere, man has disobeyed God’s revealed law and has brought himself into a state of guilt and condemnation. In the moral sphere, man loves himself and his desires more than God. The result of this is separation from God. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that God is indifferent to the sin of man. He decreed in His Word that the penalty for disobedience and sin is death. In one sense, mankind already is dead in their trespasses and sins and is under the condemning sentence of God. Although the final execution of this sentence has not been carried out, man’s doom is certain. The God of truth and justice has declared that the soul that sins shall die. God is not vindictive in the execution of His justice, but His holiness requires Him to punish sin. At the center of the universe is a Holy God.
The fact of sin places man in a great dilemma. How is it possible to escape the consequences of his sin? The Bible tells us the way, it is found in the Gospel, literally, the good news. The Gospel announces to us what God has done in history in the Person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to save men from the guilt and defilement of their sins. God requires men to repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ.
The salvation offered in the Gospel is exactly the salvation that man so desperately needs. It is also the salvation meets every need that man has. It is important to understand there is a two dimensional aspect to salvation. We are not talking about two salvations, but a dual aspect of that one salvation. When men believe the Gospel, they are saved from the legal consequences or guilt of sin and they are saved from the moral defilement of sin. Salvation from the guilt of sin is called justification and salvation from the moral defilement of sin is called regeneration or new life. The purpose of this article is to study the doctrine of justification. However, remember that justification is just one aspect of our salvation. The Bible knows nothing of a person who can be saved from the guilt of their sins and not be saved from its moral effects.
The fullest explanation of the Christian salvation is found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. An outline of the major sections of this letter will aid us understand how Paul organizes his teaching and argument:
• In the first major section, Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul demonstrates that all have sinned and come short of God’s glory. As a result, the whole discussion of salvation is set against the background of man’s sin and desperate need of salvation.
• The next section, Romans 3:21-5:10 deals with a full explanation of the doctrine of justification.
• In Romans 6:1-7:25, Paul discusses the doctrines of regeneration and sanctification or our growth in Christ-likeness and holiness.
• In Romans 8, Paul discusses the doctrine of adoption or how we have been constituted members of God’s family and the results.
Chapter eight concludes Paul’s explanation of individual salvation. We should not think that the remaining parts of his letter to the Romans are unimportant. The very opposite is the case. In chapters nine to eleven, Paul discusses the situation of the Jews who, as a nation, have failed to benefit from the Gospel. This is one of the most important and closely argued theological questions in the Word of God. Finally, in chapters twelve to sixteen, Paul discusses the ethical applications of this great salvation to the affairs and relationships of practical living.
However, our discussion in this article will be limited to Paul’s discussion of the doctrine of justification as given in Romans 3:21 to 5:10. Before we begin our discussion, it is necessary to give a word of caution. The Scriptures form an organic whole and sections cannot be as easily detached from one another as we are going to do in this article. While our purpose is to study justification, the doctrine can only be fully understood and appreciated when it is related to the entire book.
Paul explains the doctrine of justification in a three-fold manner. First, he gives us the doctrinal explanation of how it takes place, then he illustrates its truth from history, and finally, he notes some practical results of justification.
First, let us note how he explains justification from the doctrinal perspective. This is found in Romans 3:21-31. As we look at this section, we must keep remember that it follows the section where Paul has demonstrated that all mankind, both Gentiles and Jews, are sinners and under the condemnation of God.
The good news for sinners, Paul announces, is that the righteousness they so desperately need has been provided by God Himself! Thus the question that Job asked two thousand years before has been answered! There is a way by which man can be right with God. This righteousness that justifies a man does not come from the Law because man cannot obey the Law perfectly. However, what the Law cannot provide, God has provided in the giving of His Son. On the cross, Christ provided both the propitiation and redemption for our sins. He rescued us from the penalty of a broken law by taking its condemnation on Himself and turned away the wrath of God. His death also purchased us from the bondage of sin. Christ obeyed the Law perfectly and by so doing earned the righteousness that is now put to the account of the sinner. But how does the person receive this righteousness? Righteousness comes by faith. Faith is the instrumental means by which this righteousness is imputed, or put, to our account.
Justification is a legal transaction in which the guilt of our sins is put to the account of the Lord Jesus Christ and His righteousness is put to our account. Someone has called this the “Great Exchange.” As a result, we have a new standing or legal status before God Himself and on the basis of Christ’s work alone are declared righteous. The righteousness of Christ can only be received by faith. There is no possibility that we can earn it or merit it in any way.
The greatness of this exchange can best be summarized by two verses. The first verse emphasizes the procuring means of our salvation (God’s grace and Christ’s work). Romans 3:24, “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” The second verse emphasizes the instrumental means or how this gift is given to us. Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.”
We do have the answer to Job’s question! How can a man be right with God? He can be in a right relationship with God solely through God’s grace manifested in the death of Christ and received by faith alone.
In chapter four, Paul demonstrates the historical proof of the doctrine of justification. He does this by referring to the first recorded conversion experience found in the Word of God. This should not be taken to mean that Abraham was the first person who was ever saved. But the account of his justification is the first conversion narrative found in the Word of God. Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteous.” The importance of this verse cannot be stressed too greatly. All persons who are justified are justified in the same manner as Abraham. The element that Paul stresses in Romans four is the fact of Abraham’s faith. He does not give us a detailed explanation of the content of what Abraham believed. He also states that this occurred before Abraham was circumcised or became a Jew. It took place when Abraham was still a Gentile. The implication of this is that both Jew and Gentile are justified in the same manner, by faith alone in the promise of God.
In the first part of chapter five, Paul lists some of the results of justification. They include peace with God and a new standing before Him. When Paul states that we now have peace with God, he is not referring to an emotional feeling but the objective peace we have with God because of our standing in Christ. No longer are we His enemies but we have been reconciled to Him.
Although Paul stresses that justification is a once for all act that cannot increase or diminish, he does not fail to show us that the results of this new legal relationship are dynamic in nature and not static. Assurance of our acceptance by God results in a true hope of God’s glory. We can have the confidence that as we pass through the tribulations of this life, God will use even the difficult times to form us into His character.
As Paul closes the explanation of the doctrine of justification, he stands in amazement as he contrasts our former status with what we were before. He is overwhelmed as he considers that when we were God’s enemies, Christ died in our place. If, when we were enemies, God’s grace redeemed us, how much more now that we are in this new relationship can we have the assurance of His never failing love!
Finally, he summarizes the greatness and wonder of our justification. We boast or have our ground of confidence, not in what we have done, but what God in Christ has done for us. We have placed our total confidence in the Person and work of Christ because He has provided the reconciliation for us. Previously, we were in a state of guilt and condemnation, but now we have received grace and forgiveness through Christ. May God open our understanding to the greatness of our justification!