Many folks define justification as “just as if I’d never sinned.” See what they did there?
Yeah, cheesy. It is my opinion that all cheesy answers are wrong, just because.
But even beyond the wrongness of cheesiness, I don’t think this definition is adequate. Easy to remember? Yes. States partial truth? Yes, but not adequate to this pivotal word in biblical doctrine.
The majority of the time justif- words are used in the Old Testament, it has to do with justifying the righteous. What is meant is vindication, prove and show to the world that the righteous are God’s people.
At the same time, the OT says not to justify the wicked. This is interesting in light of the fact that we think justification is about saying wicked people are righteous. But this is abomination with God!
When we speak of “declared to be righteous” we usually leave it as a renaming–God says I am right, so I must be, even though I know I’m wrong.
But declare is much more of an action word than a speaking word. Declare and demonstrate are close. The righteous want God to show them off to the world of sinful haters. Put on a show, God! Come to our aid and demonstrate your love for us and not them!
One glaring exception to the common OT usage is in Isaiah 53:11 “my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” The servant we know in hindsight is Jesus Christ, the Messiah. His role was to bear iniquities of sinners and thereby justify them.
The sinners did sin, Christ bore their sins, and took them away to the cross. Through faith in Him we are justified by the blood of Jesus Christ.
So, what does this all mean? Justification is a fundamental change in who we are. “Just as if I’d never sinned” is right, but then it just stops!
Through faith we are identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection and are now raised up to newness of life. No longer servants of sin but of righteousness, people with His Spirit in us to fulfill the righteousness of the law.
Justification has a proving aspect in it. It’s the heart of that word “declared.” We, by our behavior, declare God’s righteousness, because through regeneration we are made the righteousness of God.
Justification isn’t just a mind game–you were sinners but abracadabra, poof! It’s as if you never did! Oh no, we did! That’s why Christ died. But Christ also rose again that we might be raised to new life, a new servant of righteousness life.
Justification happens by faith, not by works. You cannot justify yourself. Upon faith we are cleansed of past sin, they are removed, but it goes beyond this! We are then made the righteousness of God, not just in name, but in reality.
The righteousness that then flows out of us is the declaration of our justification we have in Christ. No righteous acts coming forth? Then there is no chance you have been justified. This is James 2.
“Just as if I’d never sinned” is a definition that is content to make my past sins gone. A fine desire. But a saving desire is to now live for righteousness. Many sinners want their sin and guilt removed. Few desire to live for righteousness.
Justification is not just about the past, but about the glorious new life in Christ lived in righteousness.