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JUSTIFICATION

Texts: Job asked, "how should man be just with God?" and Bildad asked, "How then can man be justified with God?" These verses are taken from Job 9.2 and 25.4. Usually I do not put much weight upon what Job's companions had to say but since Bildad asked essentially the same question as Job I thought it fitting to cite it too.

After writing a piece concerning The Incompatibility Of Freewill And The New Birth in which I showed that it is the heavenly birth given by the sovereign Spirit and not man's freewill that enables the saints to live differently from unregenerate people, I realized my words might be misinterpreted to think I was saying those who are born again no longer face lingering sin. For that reason I wrote a follow up piece, The Internal Warfare Faced By Christian Pilgrims, to clarify that the saints indeed still commit sins during their earthly sojourn. After writing this second article I realize a third, and hopefully, final piece should be written that deals with the matter of justification. This important doctrine was not covered at all in the first two articles, and it should not be left out of any study relating to our salvation. If a man is dead in sins before he receives the new birth, and if the same man still commits sins after he is born of God, it leaves open the question, how such a sinner can ever be counted just in God's sight. This question needs to be answered and I will try to answer it in this third article.

I begin by noting that the noun "justification" is a legal term. It simply means to declare someone to be just. Consider its application. A man is arrested and charged with a crime. He is brought into a court of law. The prosecution states what accusation he is bringing against the fellow and then he provides what evidence there is to convict him of the crime. After the prosecution has presented its case the defense attempts to dispute the charge. It then remains for the jury to deliberate whether or not the person did the crime to which he is charged. In this particular case, the jury makes a decision favorable toward the man. They say he is not guilty. This is the same as saying he is innocent, or, if you will, that he is a just man; at least as it pertains to the particular crime that brought him into the courtroom in the first place. He is set free. He is not punished. He is acquitted. He has been justified. This is the essence of justification.

This is all fair and well, but how can justification ever be applied to man in a theological sense? Both Job and Bildad asked a very good question. Consider how overwhelming the task must be. First, mark the fact that their questions focus upon how they can be declared just "with God." We can understand how a person might be just in the sight of his fellow man. We have already looked at an example of justification in the courtroom. Some teachers may grade their classes on the curve so that if the class is generally made up of mediocre students the standards may be set low enough for some to receive high grades but when it is the holy God before whom we stand it becomes an entirely different matter. Paul pointed out that "if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory;" then he adds, "but not before God" (Romans 4.1). In other words, Abraham could boast about living a holier life than his fellow man, but he could not boast about how he lived in comparison to God. One of the seraphims that Isaiah saw in his vision praised God, "Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts," and in the face of what he saw he could only cry out: "Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (Isaiah 6.3, 5). The vision's presentation of God's holiness brought him to a sense of his own utter uncleanness. When considering himself before God grading on the curve simply did not apply.

Second, we should see that there is no exception that will allow us on the basis of our own conduct to have good standing with God, for the scripture says: "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23). This should lead us to a third consideration. If we have sinned in God's sight, of whom one prophet confessed, "Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity," (that is, He cannot look on iniquity with approbation; Habakkuk 1.13) we ought to tremble at the prospects of God marking our sins. Indeed, this was in the psalmist's mind when he wrote in Psalm 130.3: "If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" Job himself followed up his question about how a man should be just before God with the statement: "If he will contend with him, he cannot answer him one of a thousand" (Job 9.3). I understand these words to mean, if God would bring a thousand charges against a man, the man would not be able to deny even one accusation. Fourth, it should also be noted that sinners have the propensity to continue to sin. In Jeremiah 13.23 we read: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil." In other words, it could be as easily expected that an Ethiopian would be able to change his skin's complexion and it could be as easily expected that a leopard would be able to remove his spots than it could be expected that a sinner would start doing good. Fifth, this leads to a further consideration; that is, man's best state is nothing to brag about: "verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity" (Psalm 39.5). And, further, we note a sixth consideration. Our own goodness again is nothing to brag about: "But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64.6). I reckon we all can see that we will not get far on a righteousness that compares to filthy rags.

Seventh, consider how it is possible that a man can be pronounced just with God. Maybe some can pull the wool over God's eyes. You know, we do reckon this does happen in our own court system. Justice is not always served. A man may have committed a crime and yet be pronounced innocent by a jury. However, one ought not to hang his hopes upon this being the case with God. Proverbs 5.21 presents the sobering truth that "the ways of man are before the eyes of the LORD, and he pondereth all his goings." Therefore, we must conclude God will never fail to see a sin we have committed.

So, here is the pitiful case of man. He stands before God a sinner who sins, not just one time, but, many times. He cannot give any justifiable excuse for his actions. Even the best of men who do the most good are still unfit sinners. All are incapable of hiding their transgressions before God. How then can a man be just before God?

Let's look at an eighth consideration to see if it offers a way for man to be just with God. Let him try to right himself before God by clinging to and keeping the law. Oh, but here again, there is no hope for man. Paul said it well: "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3.19-20). Think of all the apostle has stated in these two verses. The law will not allow you to brag. Rather, it stops your mouth from bragging. It has no saving power at all. It leads in one direction only; that is, to pronounce everyone guilty in God's sight. The law does one thing quite well. It points out your sins, but don't expect it to justify you. It cannot do that.

Have you ever given serious consideration to what a hopeless task you face in finding justification with God? Most people may not give it a second thought but consider that you may one day stand in the place that Christ spoke of: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats" (Matthew 25.31-32). Here is a picture of the King sitting upon His throne and fulfilling the role of a judge. He separates sheep from goats. To the sheep He says, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (verse 34), and to the goats He says, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (verse 41). Now, tell me. How strong do you think your confidence level will be that you are one of God's precious sheep if you dwell upon your own past life? You might have to conclude that you stand before God as a goat. If the task of being deemed just before God is put in our hands, we should look upon it as a frightful thing.

Yet, what we have given to us in Matthew, chapter 25, also contains the element of hope. After all, this chapter did speak of a people who were denominated "sheep." They were called a "blessed" people. They were to inherit a kingdom God had prepared for them from the beginning of time. Therefore, there must indeed be a way for a man to be just before God. Let us now consider how it can be so.

In Romans 3.23 Paul declared all to be sinners: "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." Glorious truth, justification is for sinners, for the apostle continued: "Being justified freely by his grace" (Romans 3.24a). The same apostle had also declared: "Being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3.7). How then is a man just with God? Look first to God's grace as the moving cause of our justification.

There is more. Paul continued by stating how this grace that justified sinners was given when he added: "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation" (Romans 3.24b-25a). Sinners are justified through Jesus Christ. He has provided redemption for His people. The word propitiation means "atonement." Christ is the source of His people's atonement. This word also includes the thought of "mercy." So, in the Lord's parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Jesus had the publican crying out: "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18.13). The word "merciful" there is a derivative of the word "propitiation." The publican is saying, "God, be propitious toward me." The inspired writers of the Bible use various words to express how Christ makes sinners just before God. In Romans 5.9 Paul wrote: "Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him." Peter spoke of it as a vicarious suffering for us: "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust" (I Peter 3.18). Paul gave us essentially the same thought when he wrote: "he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin," and then he carried the thought further by adding, "that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (II Corinthians 5.21). Here is how we are made just through Christ. Jesus, who did no sin, nonetheless had all of His people's sins laid upon Him. Since He paid the price for them, we are made righteous (just) through Him. Should it be any wonder that the Lord cried out from the cross in fulfillment of the prophecy about Him in Psalm 22.1: "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?" (Matthew 27.46). He was forsaken because He took the place of suffering that otherwise would have fallen upon us. Remove the sin and you remove the consequence. Since we are now declared righteous God has not forsaken us.

In his classic novel, Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens developed his storyline around the time of the French Revolution. Those of you who have read the novel may recall that, among the many characters he developed in his book, there were two notable men, Charles Darnay and Sidney Carten. Mr. Darnay, a man of the noble class, was taken prisoner. Frenchmen, who sought to rid France of the nobility, scheduled to send him to the guillotine. It has been a long time since I read this novel. Many details are now blurred in my mind. However, I do recall that Sidney Carten somehow managed to have men accompany him to the place where Charles Darnay was imprisoned and they were able to get him out to safety. Sidney Carter stayed, and since he was in the cell where Charles Darnay had been placed, as far as the executioners were concerned, they thought he was Charles Darnay when they came for him the following morning. They sent him to the guillotine, all the while thinking they had executed Mr. Darnay. Yes, this is just a story, but it illustrates what Christ did for His people. Christ took our place and we are "made the righteousness of God in him."

Let me go one step further with this. In Romans 8.31-34 Paul wrote: "If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who can lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." None can rightly lay charges or condemn God's elect. Why is this so? It is because God justifies them through Christ who died for them, and then, arose from death, and then, ascended to make intercession for them at God's right hand. There is a powerful statement here about Christ as an intercessor. Although we yet sin in this life Christ can always give a good reason why we ought not to be dealt with as sinners in God's sight. It is this: "Father, I died for them. They are mine."

There is still another way in which sinners are described in scripture as being just with God. It appears in language that tells us how sinners apprehend this justifying grace through Jesus Christ. Paul continued to say that the propitiation is received "through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3.25b-26). In Romans 5.1 the apostle had stated: "being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ". The sinner experiences the blessings of the holy Christ justifying him, through the gift of faith (Ephesians 2.8). He experiences all of his past sins removed, and now he is able to have peace with God. Newton said it this way: "how precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed" (from Amazing Grace, verse 2).

Lest someone should conclude that this faith has no impact upon how the believer lives he should read about the lives of Old Testament saints and see the extraordinary good works that their faith produced. By understanding that justifying faith brings about good works one can see what James had in mind when he wrote, "shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works," and he then concluded that "faith without works" is as dead as the body without the spirit. Indeed, what both Abraham and Rahab did demonstrated their faith made them just in a relative sense before their fellow man (James 2.18-26). That is, the works that proceeded from faith did not make them just with God but the works that proceeded from faith did prove they were people God saved through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Before closing this article, I would like to remark upon some words from Paul's preaching to the Jews who were gathered at a synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia. The part I pick up are the words: "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Acts 13.38-39). In these words the apostle set forth two cherished blessings the saints have through the Lord Jesus Christ. One is the pardon of sins. The other is justification. Through the man, Christ Jesus, God accomplishes what I do not believe ever happens under rules of human jurisprudence. Have you ever considered that in our justice system pardon and justification do not fit together? They proceed from two entirely different presumptions. Let me illustrate the presumption of pardon. You may recall that as one of President Clinton's last acts in office he caused quite a stir by granting pardons to various people. He, as the federal Chief Executive, had the constitutional power to pardon criminals. The presumption of pardon was based upon the fact the parties had been declared guilty of crimes. Look at this any way you will. If you approach a person against whom you have never committed an offence and you ask for his forgiveness, he will look at you wondering why you are asking for pardon if you never did anything against him. Presidents do not pardon non-criminals. Then, understand that people are pardoned through Christ because they have sinned against God. But that being the case, look at the presumption of justification. A person is tried but declared "not guilty" in a court of law. In short, as far as the legal system is concerned, he never committed a crime. Justification presumes there is no guilt. There is no basis for Presidents to consider granting pardons in such cases. People declared to be innocent don't need pardons.

It is only in God's court of justice that both apply. We are sinners and so we require pardon, but we also stand in God's sight in such a way through the merits of Christ as people who never committed an offence. Only the Lord can do what Paul described in Colossians 1.21-22: "And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight." No matter how many times I read these words, I never cease to be amazed at what God has done for his people through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ.

David K. Mattingly
April 2005