Justification by Faith: What does it Mean?

Definition of Justification in the Bible

Justification means being declared righteous. It is a legal term used in the Bible to describe the act of God in which He declares that a person is not guilty. A person who is justified is therefore in a state of acceptance with God. Its very important to be in a state of acceptance with God.


Justification by faith is an important doctrine in the Bible. The Roman Catholic church had muddied the waters on this issue for centuries, and it wasn't until Martin Luther started to publish his writings that many in the Church started to understand this issue at all. This is not to say that the knowledge of justification by faith was extinguished from the church or that there were no people that were justified by faith. It is just that the number would have been relatively few, and most of these would have been justified by faith without even having a doctrine in their minds to explain this.

Martin Luther discovers Justification by Faith

Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic Augustinian monk that was striving hard to find a sense of acceptance with God. He knew he was a sinner, and he tried to overcome his tremendous sense of guilt by imposing all kinds of strict disciplines on himself. Not only did he deny himself many of the normal comforts of life but he also went to extraordinary lengths inflicting pain on his body in order to somehow “do penance” and rid his life of the power of sin. But none of this worked for him. Being a scholar though, he had access to the Holy Scriptures, and through his study of the Book of Romans he came to an understanding that being right with God was never attainable by such works. He came to see that God's way of making people right with Himself was through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, and that what was required in the first instance, above all, was faith in God, and trust in Him.

The Law Cannot Justify Us

The Book of Romans chapter 10 verse 4 says: "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." This verse makes it very clear that righteousness is NOT obtained by diligent law-keeping of either the moral or the ceremonial law of God. The mistake many of the Jews made in Paul's day was to seeking righteousness through the law, rather than seeking it through faith. That is to say, they thought that the way to please God was to get out God's rule book and make every effort to abide by it.

"What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law."

(Romans 9:30-32)

The problem with trying to achieve righteousness by works is that no one who ever lived on earth – apart from the Lord Jesus Christ – has consistently obeyed all that God has commanded. Everyone has a blotch on their record. In fact, everyone has a record that if scrutinized carefully is very black indeed. We do our best at times to cover this up in certain ways before our fellow man, but God sees every thought, every word, and every deed. There is no way God, as a Holy and Pure Being who loves justice and righteousness, could accept sinful people simply on the basis of their personal performance. Furthermore, no amount of good performance in the future – which we really owe to God anyway – could pay for or atone for the evil we have done in the past.

We Must Believe in the Only Sufficient Sacrifice for Sins

The central message of the Bible is that reconciliation with God is now possible through Jesus Christ. How was this made possible? Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born of a virgin, without the sinful inheritance passed on from the male side. He became a man, and lived a perfect life. He offered up his own life for us as a ransom, as a payment, for the guilt of the sins of the whole world. It was not only for our individual sins, but also for our cursed wretched sinfulness that Jesus was crucified. His death in our place padi the price for us, and makes our death to sin possible. His death frees us from the impossible load of guilt we would normally be subject to. This sacrifice was foreshadowed by all the many animal sacrifices that used to be made for sin. But those animal sacrifices could not take away the sins of the people, they could only be offered in faith towards God providing a kind of temporary cover for the sins which would make it possible for God to continue dealing with them with some kind of favor. Under the New Covenant, God's favor and blessings are more freely available, Jesus having already payed the price for it through his death.

In these days, when we hear this message, we must believe in the sacrifice of Jesus as a payment for our sins. This is part of the faith required for a person to be justified by faith. And this is what makes justification by faith even possible. Without such a perfect sacrifice, God would never be righteous in letting us off the hook for past sins.

Righteousness has Always Been By Faith, not By Law

There is a popular misconception in certain segments of the Church, and it is this: that God used to make people righteous by means of the Law, but that only since the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ God does it in response to faith. However God has never made people righteous by means of keeping the law! It has always been by faith! This was true even before the law was given.

The Bible says in Genesis 15:6 that "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness". This verse is so important in having a correct understanding of how righteousness comes that Paul the apostle quotes it twice in the New Testament – once in Romans 4:3 and once in Galatians 3:6.

We see this principle also in the life of King David. David was a morally flawed individual, but he did have a real passion to be with God, to know God. He also had a trust in God that God forgave his sins. He speaks about the blessedness of those whose sins are forgiven in Psalm 32. He also understood that the animal sacrifices – costly as they may have been – were not the key to being forgiven. They only pointed to the REAL sacrifice that God Himself would make to pay for our sins.

God is looking for a personal relationship. Trust and confidence in God is required for this relationship to exist, and so God made THIS QUALITY of true faith the indispensable one as far as He was concerned. The Bible says: "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). This was as true in the Old Testament period as it is today. If you desire to please God, begin with FAITH. Don't begin with an effort to stop sinning before you are willing to believe that God will forgive you. That would be like putting the cart before the horse. Your unbelief is the number one sin you need to deal with before all others.

Faith is believing from the heart that what God says is actually true. A person with true faith relies on God and His word. Faith has power to change your life because it brings the things of God into your life in a very real way. Through faith, we actually receive new life from God, and this new life begins a work of transformation in us. We actually get a new spiritual heart and a new spiritual identity in Christ when we first truly believe. This happens because the Holy Spirit goes to work in our innermost being, giving us a new spirit.

The Main Passage on Justification by Faith

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

(Romans 3:21-26)

This passage summarises an important part of the Gospel of God in a few words, but uses somewhat technical language. You need to understand what these words all mean, or you might get the wrong idea.

God gives His own righteousness to people in this way. It is not a righteousness based on law-keeping. This does NOT imply that there are no lifestyle conditions whatever imposed by God on those who are to be justified by faith, it simply means that whatever conditions there may be, they certainly are not the same as keeping all of the law of God, and that in no sense does anything we do MERIT the value of the gift.

Please let me illustrate. If I say, "Come to my house this afternoon and I will give you a million dollars, just don't tell my wife!" then if you fulfil those conditions you may receive a million dollars. Did you EARN a million dollars by doing those things? NOT AT ALL. But what if you come in 2 days time after checking with my wife first? Then I won't give the million dollars. You might say: "That's not fair! I thought it was a gift!" The giver of a gift can still put conditions upon the reception of a gift, without those conditions constituting a payment for the gift.

So it is with God. God will give this righteousness, but he gives it ONLY to those who TRULY BELIEVE. And GOD, not man, is the one who defines what BELIEVING really is. Believing in HIM, not just in the message that you are forgiven, is the requirement of God. 

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in HIM should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16)

Its not just any old believing, or believing that there is now no problem that is required. It is believing IN JESUS. And when you truly believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior and Teacher – that is going to definitely lead to certain change in your life.

This is where people can get confused. Some believe that because salvation and justification are a GIFT, no changes are required on the part of the recipient! This is not the case! The promise is only for those who truly believe (not to those who merely believe that they believe) and JESUS is the one who defines and knows what BELIEVING IN HIM really means. I suggest you have a look at and study of the gospel of John to get a good idea of what it REALLY means to Jesus.

Truly believing in Jesus is going to lead to some changes. It certainly doesn't lead to perfect keeping of the moral law of God in a short space of time. But it does imply the kind of trust which will cause a person to submit themselves to God for a kind of mental re-programming, if you will. Before coming to Christ we are full of the world's programming in different ways, and the devil's input. The Bible tells us that we must be transformed by the renewing of our mind. We have to come out of spiritual darkness into the light of truth. This happens as a person willingly submits themselves to the light of God's Word. The person who truly believes in Jesus for what and who is is, comes to confess and believe that Jesus Christ is truly LORD and MASTER. You can't trick Jesus, you can't mess with Him and get away with it long term. You only receive forgiveness through Him when you have truly given yourself to Him – and stay given to Him. This is the only right and acceptable response to Jesus' huge sacrifice He made for us.

Salvation is free, but it is also salvation from sin (Matthew 1:21). You can't have salvation from punishment but cling indefinitely to your sins. Believing in Jesus as Lord means relinquishing your rights to please yourself in ways that God forbids. Jesus gives those who believe in Him TIME TO REPENT. In one place the Lord Himself says:

"I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality" (Rev. 2:21)

So can an ungodly person who comes through the gospel to believe in Jesus be considered immediately right with God – justified? YES! God's Word says that he justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). However, a person only stays justified as long as they truly believe in Jesus. If they cease to believe in Jesus as Lord from the heart, if they choose to go after things the Holy Spirit CLEARLY shows them are wrong – and persist in such things – the BIBLE ITSELF warns concerning the eternal judgment that such people will face. And this is where all the teachings of Jesus and the warnings of the apostles come into place. None of these things were abrogated by the revelation of justification by faith. It is just that none of these warnings in themselves are sufficient to engender the kind of faith that God requires in the first place. Fearing God, while healthy, is not the same as having saving faith. We need saving faith in Jesus to start in a right relationship with God. But we need the fear of God, and some other graces from God, to STAY in that right relationship with God.

So justification by faith is vital, it is Good News, and we need to receive this message to get started with God. But in no way does justification by faith negate the validity of the moral law for us as a guide to God's standards for us. Those boundaries are set to show us when we are away from the will of God. But for sanctification – or personal transformation into the image of Christ, we need MORE than boundaries, we need MORE than the law. We need to pursue the love, grace, and fruit of God's Holy Spirit in our lives in order to really be transformed. We won't get where we need to by focusing our attention on the boundaries between right and wrong. We need to go after the Holy Spirit. We need to be led by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will lead us deeply into the heart of God, where we are transformed from within, and in fact, where God's law is written on our hearts! This is in fact the new covenant.



"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. " (Jeremiah 31:33)







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