Q: What is justification?
A: Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Romans 5:19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.
The first benefit that we receive, as the elect, in this life is justification. It's a term we throw around a lot in Christianity, but I wonder how many of us can really explain what justification means? As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I've been leading the Proclamation youth through the book of Galatians this summer. The first week as we were discussing the major themes of Galatians, I asked the youth, "who can tell me what justification means?" The question, not surprisingly, was met with silence. Does that mean the youth didn't know what justification means? No, probably not. But what it does show is that there are words that we, as Christians, can take for granted. There are words that we know, in essence, what they mean but we fail to define succinctly and clearly when pressed to do so. This is where a tool like the catechism can be quite helpful!
The catechism gives us a beautiful statement here of what justification is. Look at what it says. First, it is an act of God's free grace. Grace is a word which many of us can easily define. Simply put, it is getting what we do not deserve. So justification is something we do not deserve, yet God gives it to us freely. Secondly, we see here that justification is the act whereby God forgives all of our sins and declares us righteous. Talk about receiving something we don't deserve! Who could imagine that the holy, just God would ever forgive wretched sinners and declare them righteous! Thirdly, though, we see how it is that God, who is perfectly holy and perfectly just, could shower this wonderful, free grace upon us poor, wretched sinners. It is because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed (that is, put on or credited) to us. This is the great exchange. Jesus Christ, having willingly taken on our sin when he suffered the wrath and curse of God for sin on the cross, gives us and cloths us in his righteousness. And fourthly, we see that we become participants in this great exchange by receiving the work of Christ on our behalf by faith alone. This is why Paul would write in Galatians 2:16, "yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ", and later in Galatians 3:11, "the righteous shall live by faith" (quoting Habakkuk 2:4).
Is it any wonder why we can struggle at times to succinctly define the word "justification"? It's a rich and amazing truth with many layers to it. But it is a truth that we as Christians should be able to understand and explain, because at the heart of justification is the very gospel itself. Here, in the doctrine of justification, do we see our hope for salvation, that we, depraved, fallen sinners have been, by the righteousness of Jesus Christ, made clean before a perfect and holy God. We will praise God forever for this great and glorious truth!