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The gospel is more than justification, but it is never less than God's declaration of 'not guilty' to sinners who repent and believe. 

When Peter stood up at the council in Jerusalem to defend the conversion of Gentiles without the necessity of keeping the ceremonial parts of the law of Moses, he said: ‘we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will’ (Acts 15:11).  Peter believed that salvation is through grace, and this is exactly the big idea that Paul expands on his letters to the Romans and Ephesians.

Salvation is by grace, God’s unmerited love and favour to us in Christ. This is crystal clear in scripture like what Paul wrote to to the Ephesians: by grace you have been saved through faith (Ephesians 2:8). He also wrote to the Romans that they were justified by his grace as a gift (Romans 3:24).  The key word in both these statements is grace. To understand the process of salvation, we start by exploring the word grace.

Grace is God’s unmerited, unearned love, favour and good will, given freely and generously in Christ. Grace is God’s more than enough, over-the-top, beneficial goodness. Grace is God’s power that reverses the consequences of Adam’s sins and overthrows the reign of death in our lives. Grace includes many benefits, but one of those is justification. Look at what Paul writes in Romans 5:24:

and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

First, notice the who of justification: whoever believes, from v. 22. Who is this verse describing? Although in v. 23 the ‘all’ is truly descriptive of everybody, not everybodyis justified.  Therefore, the appropriate answer to ‘who’ isanybody (implying lack of particularity) that believes.

Second, notice the what of justification: Justification (Gr. dikaioo)  does not mean ‘to make righteous’ (in an ethical sense) nor simply to treat as righteous (though one is really not righteous).[1]   “This is ‘no legal fiction’ but a legal reality of the utmost significance; ‘to be justified ‘means to be acquitted by God from all charges that could be brought against a person because of his or her sins.”[2]  In Jewish theology, one had to wait until the last judgment to receive their judicial verdict.  In Paul’s theology, the verdict of ‘not guilty’ is rendered the moment a person believes.  The reason this is not a legal fiction is because God really counts (imputes) the righteousness of Christ to us (see Imputation in Systematic Theology section below).

Third, notice the basis of justification - this is by his grace as a gift.  The Point: God’s justifying verdict is totally unmerited.  We are justified freely by his grace (χαρις – charis).  By grace, Paul is emphasizing the fact that justification is rooted in nothing we bring to the table; grace describes how God has acted in Christ, God’s justifying verdict is completely unmerited.  People have done, and can do, nothing to earn it. 

Fourth, notice that justification happens through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. In the Bible, redemption, is most thoroughly expressed in the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt.  Thus, in the Old Testament, believers are called to look back to that event as a reminder of their covenantal relationship with God.  In the New Testament, the use of redemption always has the Old Testament background as an undergirding idea.  Redemption basically means ‘liberation through payment of a price.’  In 1st and 2nd century B.C., redemption referred to ransoming of prisoners of war, slaves, and condemned criminals.  ‘Human beings pay nothing to receive God’s righteousness; the freedom of justification, however, involves a cost on God’s part, for it was obtained “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”’[3]  Additionally, as Paul uses it here, redemptioninvolves the idea of sacrifice, because in the next verse (25) he refers to blood, and thus brings in the idea of sacrifice.  Sacrifice involves the payment of a price (e.g., the blood of the animal in the Old Testament). This connection between redemption and price paid (the blood of Jesus) is confirmed in other New Testament passages like Ephesians 1:7In him we have redemption through his blood.

Understanding Justification by Faith 

1. Definition: Justification comes from the Greek. δικαιόω dikaioo (justify): to declare righteous; to declare not guilty.   

Justification is God's declaration of 'not guilty' and 'now righteous' over a sinner who repents and believes the gospel.

Justification is  “an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.”[4]  It is summarised as forgiveness, imputed righteousness, and declared righteousness.  Justification is based completely on the grace of God; we don’t earn or merit it at all.  Justification is a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight.[5]  Thus, the basis for justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

2. Justification and Regeneration: It is important to distinguish between regeneration, justification, and sanctification. Justification is a legal declaration; regeneration is the ‘secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us’.[6] When Jesus speaks of regeneration, he calls it ‘being born again’ (cf John 3:3, 7). When Paul speaks of regeneration, he calls us it ‘being made alive together with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:5). Thus, we can say that ‘regeneration is an act of God in us; justification is a judgment of God with respect to us.  The distinction is like the distinction between the act of a surgeon and the act of a judge.  The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us.  That is not what the judge does; he gives a verdict regarding our judicial status.  If we are innocent he declares accordingly’.[7]  Those who hold a Reformed perspective understand regeneration to be monergistic: that is, regeneration is accomplished by the Holy Spirit alone. Those who hold an Arminian perspective understand regeneration to be synergistic, that is, the Holy Spirit cooperates with the will of man.[8]

3. The Basis for Justification: Justification is based completely on the grace of God; we don’t earn or merit it at all. Justification is a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight.[9]  Thus, the basis for justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The basis of justification is the atonement provided by Christ;[10] it is part of the redemption we have in Christ. Paul summarises how grace, redemption and justification work together: being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24). He goes on to say that justification is accomplished in the past, at the death of Christ (Romans 5:10), and is on the basis of the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9).

That we are justified by faith is clear from the key verses that affirm this truth (e.g., Romans 3:24-26, Ephesians 2:8-9). Justification is by faith alone, not by works. But to go beyond a statement of the biblical formulation, justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28), what does it mean that we are justified by faith?  What is the role of faith in the formula justification by faith?

Faith is the instrumental cause of justification.  An instrumental cause is the ‘means by which’ something takes place. For example, when a sculptor creates a statue, the instrumental cause of the sculpture is the sculptor’s chisel. It is by faith – believing the promise of the gospel, that we are justified – declared not guilty. And all of this by grace. Good news!


[1] Moo, Romans, 227.

[2] Moo, Romans, 227.

[3] Schreiner, Romans, 190.

[4] Grudem, Theology, p. 723.

[5] Murray, Redemption, 124.

[6] Grudem, Theology, 699.

[7] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 121.

[8] For further discussion on the differences between the Reformed and Arminian perspectives, see Appendix X.

[9] Murray, Redemption, 124.

[10] See Appendix 1 for a description of the gospel.  At the heart of the gospel is the penal substitutionary death of Christ, which is the basis for our justification.