What We Believe: The Doctrine of Justification (III) – What is it to be Justified?

“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:19–28).

The Nature of Justification (What is it?)

Having considered the importance of the doctrine of justification, we now need to provide a summary statement of the doctrine. What I would like to provide is a kind of “primer” or simple introduction to the doctrine, using three basic headings: first, the nature of our justification—what is it?; second, the basis of our justification—on what is it based?; and third, the enjoyment of our justification how is it obtained? We will start with the first of these, the nature of justification, in this article. The others will have to wait until a subsequent article. One of the common ways of getting at the nature of justification is by means of the question, is it a forensic or judicial declaration of God? Or is it a moral process or transformation in us? The Protestant or Reformation view maintains that it is the former, a legal declaration by God pronouncing the sinner righteous. The Roman Catholic view maintains that it is the latter, a process of moral transformation equivalent to what, in evangelical terms, is known as the work of sanctification.

This way of putting the question already illustrates one of the problems we often face when we consider the doctrine of justification: the terms used are often technical and abstract, and, as such, can get in the way of clear understanding. In order to make progress, therefore, we have to be crystal clear about the way we use these terms, knowing exactly what they are saying.

If we say justification is a judicial act, that it is forensic, what are we really saying? Well, I’m sure some of you, at least those of you who are older, will remember when high schools were really schools, and they had what was called “forensics.” “Forensics” was a discipline of public speaking or debate. If you participated in forensics, you would probably engage in public discourse and disputation. Forensics has to do with a kind of public speaking.

But there’s another side to the idea of forensics, and it’s this: it is a form of public speaking that takes place in a very peculiar context. And that context is a court of law. This is evident from the way the language of forensics is still used in our speaking and writing. Forensics, including forensic medicine, is a very important component in determining the guilt or innocence of someone who has been accused of a crime in a court of law. DNA evidence, for example, is an important part of forensics or the work of gathering and presenting evidence in court cases. Such evidence can exonerate or prove the guilt of someone charged in a court of law.

If you put these two ideas together—forensics having to do with public speaking and with the court of law—the basic idea of forensic justification is that God makes a declaration in His court, the court of heaven, regarding the guilt or innocence of His people. In the act of justification, God assumes the position of Judge in the highest of courts—not the court of public opinion, not the Supreme Court of the United States, but the highest conceivable forum of judgment—and makes declaration respecting His creatures. Justification has to do with what God has to say to do with what God has to say in that court with respect to you and me, miserable sinners that we are. What is God’s judgment with respect to you and me? That’s the issue in justification. Does He declare us, does He speak in that court so as to repute us, acceptable to Himself, not only forgiven but regarded as righteous and well-pleasing to Him? Or does God in His judgment in the forum of heaven (it should be noted that the Latin root for forensics is “forum,” the place of rendering judgment) find us guilty? In foro divino, in the divine forum or court, what does God declare concerning us sinners? That’s the essential issue in justification.

Now let me illustrate that for a moment from the Scriptures. The idea of justification, in this sense of a judicial declaration, did not originate with the Apostle Paul, but is found already in the language of the Old Testament. If you read the old writers — for example, James Buchanan or John Owen on the doctrine of justification — you will notice that they begin by illustrating how in the Old Testament this is the key idea when someone is justified. In justification, we are declared, not made, righteous. In justification, a declaration is made in a court respecting the innocence or the guilt, the righteousness or the condemnation, of those who are judged.



I will only give two typical illustrations from the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 25, verses 1–3, Moses says that, if there is a dispute between men and they go to court to have their case decided, the judge is obliged to “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.” Justice requires that the innocent be justified and the guilty condemned. Now it is certainly true that, in the act of pronouncing the court’s judgment, the guilt or innocence, the righteousness or the lack thereof of the one being judged, is a paramount concern. However, so far as the meaning and the significance of the term, lito justify, is concerned, it does not mean to make the one justified just. It means to declare him so, to declare him to be in the right, to be without guilt.

The other example is in Proverbs 17:15, where we read, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” I Here again the idea cannot be that the judge, when justifying the wicked or condemning the righteous, makes the wicked righteous or makes the righteous wicked. It is the verdict of the judge, the declaration pronounced in the court of law, that is at issue. Almost all the instances of the verb “to justify” in the Old Testament have this sense or meaning, namely, that a judicial declaration has been made regarding the guilt or innocence of someone.

It is this Old Testament usage that predominates in the New Testament as well, especially in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. This is evident from the contrast that is drawn between “to justify” and “to condemn,” and from the court imagery and language that permeates Paul’s descriptions of justification, particularly in the opening chapters of Romans.

Many are no doubt familiar with that great text in Romans 8:33, where the apostle says, “lt is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?” But if you read Romans 3 carefully, especially verses 19 and 20, you will notice the court imagery that also pervades this passage. The apostle says, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be closed and all the world may be accountable to God, because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight.” The apostle portrays in this passage the circumstance of the sinner before the throne of God, in the court of heaven, and under the charge brought by the law of God. When you stand before God in His court, and He takes the measure of you by His law, what do you or anyone have to say in your defense? Are you able to make declaration of your righteousness before God? “Certainly not”, answers the apostle. When the law of God speaks, every mouth is stopped! Every mouth is shut, and the whole world is held accountable before God. The idea is quite simple: no man will be able to speak in his own defense, justifying himself by the works of the law.

This passage and its legal imagery reminds me of a little incident in my own life that occurred when my family lived in California. I was called as a witness in a court of law. Someone had stolen into our home while we were away on a Sunday afternoon and had run off with some of our possessions, leaving some rather striking fingerprints on the glass in our family room. (I should note, parenthetically, that my wife often kidded me about how fastidious I was to keep that glass clean. On this occasion, I was able to remind her, “See, it was worthwhile to do that, because we’ve got these beautiful fingerprints of this thief!”) Well, to make a long story short, they nabbed this thief, and they had him before court, and I was called to testify. My testimony was to come to this: “I don’t know the man. I’ve never invited him into my house. So how did his fingerprints get on my glass?” When it came time for this man’s “day in court” as soon as I was called to the front, immediately his lawyer leaped from his chair and said, “Judge, we beg the indulgence of the court.” And then he went into a procedure which included a “plea bargain” with the judge for a lesser penalty, as a condition for acknowledging his client’s guilt. Now, why did he do that? Because it was as plain as day that he was guilty, and he had nothing to say in his own defense. His mouth was stopped!

Now that’s the idea of which the apostle is speaking when he talks here of the world held accountable before God, such that every mouth, yours and mine as well, has nothing whereof to speak in order to prove before God that we are innocent, and we have a right to be justified. Justification has to do with God’s verdict, His declaration that we are not guilty, but innocent.

Two Observations

But now let me draw this first point regarding the nature of justification to a conclusion by observing two things.

First, I do not believe that, in the final analysis, the most basic difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic on the doctrine of justification, has to do with whether it is forensic or not. In recent years, many Roman Catholics have been willing to acknowledge that justification includes this forensic idea of God’s judgment regarding the sinner’s guilt or innocence. Though they continue to confuse justification and sanctification, treating justification as though it also involved a process of moral renewal, they are often willing to concede that the basic idea is that of our reputation before God, what God declares about our innocence or guilt. This is something that John Murray, for example, recognizes also in his lectures on justification.

Though it may come as a surprise to some Protestants, even the Council of Trent, in response to the Reformation’s doctrine of justification, acknowledged that justification, at least in one respect, has to do with a judicial declaration. In the sixth session, chapter 7, Trent speaks of justification this way, “Not only are we reputed to be righteous, but we are called righteous, receiving justice within us.” In other words, even the Medieval Catholic Church understood that justification has to do with what God reputes us to be. To be sure, Trent then goes on to say that, in so reputing us to be righteous, God also makes us righteous, such that our own righteousness becomes the basis upon which we are acceptable to God. In doing so, Trent makes our justification depend upon a righteousness that is our own, not Christ’s alone. No doubt, as we shall argue, this amounts to nothing less than an abandonment of the gospel.

But where Roman Catholicism goes wrong is not so much in its failure to see that justification has to do with God’s verdict regarding us, but in its understanding of the basis or the ground of this verdict.

As we shall see, herein lies the great divide between the truth of the gospel of free justification and the Roman view: the gospel declares that our righteousness before God is a righteousness that is not our own, but Christ’s alone. In short, the crux of the difference between the evangelical and Catholic doctrines of justification emerges when we consider the two matters that remain: first, what is the basis for our justification; and second, how is our justification obtained. But we will reserve these matters for our next article.

Second, I have the impression and sometimes I witness this even among evangelical preachers—that we have lost some of our conviction respecting the point with which I began, namely, that this is the “main hinge” of the Christian faith. Do we any longer believe that the whole of the gospel, at least from one point of view, can be summed up in terms of the doctrine of justification?

There are those, for example, who say that the world in which we live today can no longer understand the doctrine of justification. The doctrine, because it belongs to the court of law, assuming that God is our Judge and that the law serves to expose our wrongdoing, militates against, they say, the common assumptions of modem people. We no longer thinkin legal categories. God is not thought to be in the business of judging sinners. The law is no longer preached or taught as having divine authority or serving to condemn us for our sins.

But we do not have the freedom or right to change the terms of the gospel of justification. It is the calling of the church to preach the gospel of justification only as it has been revealed in the Scriptures. Preachers must remind sinners and those are the only kinds of people to whom they preach—that it doesn’t matter so much at the end of the day what your boss at work says about you. It does not ultimately matter what your wife may think of you (not unimportant, but not ultimately important), what your associates at work, what your neighbors and friends, what the “court of public opinion,” may say about you, so far as your reputation is concerned. For it is not the court of public opinion that finally counts. It is not what men may say with respect to me that will make the difference between eternal life and death.

We must rather preach that, what counts in life and in death, what finally matters, is: What does God say regarding me? Where do I stand with Him? Is He pleased with me? Does He embrace me as one who is altogether in the right? What has God to say about me in His court? Does He repute me to be righteous, and thus a legitimate heir of eternal life and the freedom of the gospel? That remains your greatest task as a preacher: to let those to whom you bring the gospel know that justification is the ultimate issue of life and of death. That everything, absolutely everything, hinges upon whether I am accepted or condemned by God, an heir of eternal life or eternal condemnation.

Dr. Cornelis Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook magazine, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.