From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 10 – Jesus’s death on the cross
All the aspects of the atonement that we have looked at so far have been to do with forgiving our sins, taking guilt away from us and preventing God’s judgment happening to us. Justification, is different. It relates to receiving righteousness from Jesus and having it added to us. This aspect of what Jesus achieved for us on the cross means that it became possible for God the Father to see us as having all the righteousness of Jesus added to us or given to us as a free gift. This has a very positive dimension to it. It raises our status, and adds something to us that we had not got:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.2 Corinthians 5:21 (RSV)
In other words, we have seen earlier that Jesus’ death on our behalf made it possible for our sins to be taken away from us and placed on Him so that we could be forgiven. That was essential, but it still wasn’t enough. It merely cancels out our sin but does not, in itself, make us righteous. It would be like taking away all the wrong answers from an examination script, but there are still no correct answers on it. Thus it prevents marks being lost, but no marks have been gained.
The key to understanding the concept of justification is to realise that God wants to achieve far more than simply to forgive us and make us sinless. Being declared not guilty, or made sinless, is not quite enough. God also wants us to be made as righteous as Jesus. That cannot be achieved solely by us having our sins taken away and forgiven. That by itself would make us innocent and sinless, but it would not make us righteous. We therefore need to have righteousness added to us as well as having our sins taken away.
So, the process of being justified means being ‘made just’. That has exactly the same meaning as being ‘made righteous’. It means that all of Jesus’ righteousness, which He earned by His perfect life and His complete obedience to the Law of Moses, is credited to us. It is as if we had earned it for ourselves. It is as if we had perfectly obeyed the Law of Moses ourselves. We gain this justification or transfer of righteousness by having faith in Jesus and putting our trust in Him:
1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.Romans 5:1-2 (RSV)
Here is an analogy to help explain the difference between having our sins washed away and being made righteous or justified. Imagine a man owes ten million pounds to another man and that the second man then forgives him the entire debt. Now the first man is no longer in debt. Previously he was hopelessly bankrupt and unable to pay his debts. But now he has no debts at all.
However, he is still not rich. He merely has no debts. But if the second man was to then give him another ten million pounds and add that to his bank account, he would now be wealthy as well as having no debts.
So, cancelling the debt corresponds to God forgiving our sins and washing them away, but adding ten million pounds to the bank account corresponds to being made righteous by having Jesus’ righteousness transferred to us. The only flaw in the analogy is that Jesus’ righteousness is infinite rather than limited to a particular figure like ten million pounds.
Let us consider another analogy which may be helpful in showing the distinction between having our sins forgiven and being made righteous. Imagine yourself dressed in filthy, torn, worn-out clothes. If a wealthy man was to offer to give to you his own expensive, brand-new clothes and to take away from you your filthy rags, then it would operate as follows:
a) the taking away, or taking off, of your filthy old clothes would correspond to forgiveness. It is the removal of what is horrible, ugly and dirty. It means that you no longer have the sin and guilt that you had.
b) the putting on of the rich man’s new, expensive, clean clothes would correspond to justification. It is righteousness being added to you, so that you have something which you did not previously have.
So, merely to remove your filthy old garments would mean you were no longer dirtily dressed, but you would not yet be well dressed. You would merely be naked, with no garments at all, either good or bad. But the adding or putting on of the expensive new clothing represents receiving Jesus’ righteousness. The Bible speaks of this as putting on the ‘robe of righteousness’:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewelsIsaiah 61:10 (RSV)
That is a picture or illustration of what Jesus does when He makes us righteous. He gives us His own ‘robe of righteousness’ and allows us to wear His clothes as if we were Him. Therefore, justification, (being made righteous) is perhaps the most positive and glorious part of the whole atonement. It means that we are not only forgiven and made clean, but also made righteous and perfect, just as Jesus was perfect. We are allowed to share in His perfection, as if we were equally perfect:
and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,Hebrews 5:9 (RSV)
We are therefore able to be raised up to a vastly higher level and made to be righteous by having all the righteousness of Jesus legally transferred to us, or ‘imputed‘ to us. So, whereas the sin of one man, Adam, caused the whole world to inherit his sin nature, the righteous actions of Jesus made it possible for us all to be made righteous. That enables us to inherit all the blessings that come from His perfectly righteous life:
17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.Romans 5:17-19 (NIV)
To use yet another analogy, in a legal context, the transfer of Jesus’ righteousness to us is similar to the concept in land law, or conveyancing, of having jointly owned freehold property. Usually, when a husband and wife buy a house they choose to be registered at the Land Registry as ‘joint tenants’. That means that each of them owns the whole of the property simultaneously. So, if a man owns a house and, on marriage, wishes to make his wife a joint owner, he could transfer to her a joint interest in the house. That would not reduce his own ownership. He would still own all of it while, at the same time, she would also own all of it.
It is a little like that with Jesus’ righteousness. It is infinite and fully belongs to Him, but, at the same time, He chooses to share it all with us. So, He transfers to us the ‘joint ownership’ of all His righteousness, not just some of it. Therefore God is legitimately able to view us as if we were just as righteous as Jesus. That transferred righteousness is given as a gift to anybody who becomes a genuine Christian.
That imputed or transferred righteousness isn’t earned by us. It is given to us as a free gift because of our faith in Jesus. In the same way, God chose to regard Abraham as being righteous because of the genuineness of his faith, not his good deeds. God ‘credited’ Abraham with righteousness simply because he believed and trusted God:
6Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.Galatians 3:6-7 (NASB)
20yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.Romans 4:20-21 (NASB)
Therefore, in the same way, righteousness is ‘reckoned to’ or ‘credited to’ all those who believe in Jesus and put their faith in Him:
22Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. 23Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.Romans 4:22-25 (NASB)
So, we can say that our sins are forgiven on the basis of faith. But we can also say that it is equally by faith that we are credited with all of Jesus’ righteousness:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,Romans 5:1 (NASB)
Please refer to chapter 12 (Salvation Cannot be Earned) for a fuller explanation of the fact that we are saved by God’s grace in response to our faith in Jesus, not as a result of doing good deeds.
Because we are justified we are saved from the wrath of God:
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.Romans 5:9 (NASB)
So, having had our sins fully forgiven, and having had all of Jesus’ righteousness transferred to us, we are viewed by God as if we were the same as Jesus in terms of both innocence and righteousness. That means that nobody can charge us with any crime or convict us of anything. We are made both fully innocent and fully righteous:
33Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.Romans 8:33-34 (NASB)