There is no teaching as influential to the historic Protestant church as justification. English Puritan Thomas Watson (AD 1620-1686) spoke of the doctrine of justification in this way, “Justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity.” In other words, to err on this point is to miss the very heart of the Christian faith. But what is justification? How should we understand it? Why should we treasure it? At its core, justification is the means of answering some of humanity’s deepest questions: What can I do with my guilt? How can I be made right with God?
What is your answer to that question? So often when we think about the nature of righteousness or our being made right before God we look to ourselves. We buy into that old maxim, “God helps those who help themselves” or “God knows I tried my best and that’s good enough for Him.” Though popular, these ideas fall short of the Scripture’s teaching. Though there are many helpful places to begin our study, we do well to consider the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and that notorious Augustinian monk with a mallet, Martin Luther.
Luther, who lived in Germany in the 1500s, did everything in his power to please God. As a monk he sought to please God by fasting, by praying, by a life of celibacy, denial, regular confession of his sins, poverty and more. “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery” Luther wrote, “it was I.” But for all of his efforts, he still found himself unable to be righteous in God’s sight. He could not find the answer to satisfy his guilt.
When he considered God’s demand for righteousness, Luther wrote, “I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners . . . . Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.” Theologian Stephen J. Nichols explained Luther’s analysis in this way, “[Luther] hated the righteousness of God because he understood it to mean that which he had to achieve.” For Luther, the righteousness of God meant the righteousness which God demands of sinful people.
Eventually Luther was driven to the point of hopelessness because he realized that God demanded perfection and none of us fit the bill. Though Luther has become a pin cushion for psychoanalysis in the 20th century, his consideration of guilt was valid. In fact, one of the Old Testament prophets affirms Luther’s assessment that we can in no way contribute to our salvation. Isaiah wrote “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Isaiah 64:6 ESV) According to the Hebrew underlying this text, the polluted garment in view is a used menstrual rag. What does that mean? If at our best, our works would be offensive to our senses, how much more unacceptable are they to the holiness of God?
What becomes all the plainer as we consider the righteous demand of God is this: what we need, we cannot provide. We return then to Luther’s story when his understanding of God forever changed, “There [in Romans 1:17] I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith . . . The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith.”
By faith, God accepts sinners as righteous. It is not by their righteous acts, but by Christ’s righteous acts on their behalf. By faith people are rendered acceptable in God’s sight. Thomas Watson, our English friend wrote, “God does not justify us because we are worthy, but by justifying us makes us worthy.”
Watson and Luther weren’t all that creative. They merely echoed the words of the Apostle Paul who wrote in his letter to the Romans, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe . . . [who] are justified by his grace as a gift” (Romans 3:22, 24 ESV) The righteousness God demands is accomplished by Christ and Christians are made the recipients of this by faith. Paul will again reveal the mystery of God before us. “For our sake he [that is God the Father] made him [that is Christ Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
The sum of the whole matter is this: justification is the once-and-for-all declaration of God where the sinner is forgiven for the sake of Christ’s righteousness. We are saved by God. We are rendered acceptable by God. We are redeemed by God. We are pardoned by God. We are declared forever “not guilty” by God. We are truly forgiven. And all of this is to the glory of God alone, which is codified in that Protestant slogan “Soli Deo Gloria” (Latin “Glory to God Alone”)
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship…” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV).