What Does It Mean to Be "Justified"?

Christians justified. What does that mean? The following material grew out of a question asked by a reader. He was concerned that some Bible verses on the subject seem contradictory. My response was: Having read over the verses you referenced (plus a few more), I don't really see much difficulty in reconciling what they teach–but then, maybe I'm missing something you have seen. Let me quote the verses, and comment a bit on the meaning (adding one more of my own–about James's discussion of "justification"–that I rather expected you might include).

To state it briefly (points I will develop in a moment: The Apostle Paul uses the word justified in a legal sense to refer to our position before God. We are pronounced righteous (justified) by a holy God. The Apostle James uses the term in a practical sense to refer to our condition before men. We demonstrate (justify our claim) that we are believers by our behaviour.

Now, let's consider some passages of Scripture.

Romans 2:13. "For not the hearers of the law are justified in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified." The Jewish Law was faithfully read in the synagogues, week by week. But more than just hearing it was needed. Did they obey it? This is Paul's expression of the Law principle (do –>> and be blessed), as opposed to the Grace principle (be blessed –>> and do). It is stated several times in the Law itself. "You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them" (Lev. 18:5). "Every commandment which I command you today you must be careful to observe, that you may live" (Deut. 8:1; cf. 4:1).

That is the principle. If a person were to live up to God's holy standard completely and continually, he would have no sins for which he would deserve the death penalty. But we all know, both from Scripture and from personal experience, that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). And "whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all" (Jas. 2:10). Only the Lord Jesus was completely without sin (Jn. 8:29; Heb. 4:15; I Pet. 2:22). That is why He alone was qualified to die as our Substitute under the wrath of God. He had no sins of His own for which to be punished.

The Law principle is clear. And there are many relatively good-living people in the world. But none of us has fulfilled a holy God's absolute demands. As Paul points out in Galatians 3:10, "As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.'" Nevertheless, the Law serves a purpose by showing us how far short we fall of God's standard. That is the meaning of another verse you refer to. Romans 3:20 says, "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin." The Law focuses our attention on human sinfulness (cf. I Tim. 1:8-11).

The Law shows us our hopeless condition. How then are we to be saved? It can only be by grace, God's unmerited favour (Eph. 2:8-9), and through faith in the perfect work Christ has already accomplished on our behalf. "Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24). Or, as Galatians 2:16 puts it, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified."

Galatians 3:2. "This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith." And Galatians 3:5. "Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" Paul here is refuting the Judaizers, who taught that it was necessary to keep the Law of Moses, in addition to trusting in Christ, in order to be accepted by God and be saved. This is a perversion of the gospel that robs grace of any meaning. That is why Paul is so angered by these false teachers (Gal. 1:6-8).

The Spirit of God does His regenerating work in our hearts when we trust in Christ. It has nothing to do with whether we have lived a good enough life. And the power to live for God after we're saved comes from Him too. We are not only saved by the gracious work of God, believers "stand" knee-deep in grace as well (Rom. 5:1-2). We are brought to spiritual maturity through gracious work of the Spirit of God (II Cor. 3:18). "If we live in the Spirit [through the new birth], let us also walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25). And as we do that, "the fruit of the Spirit" (vs. 22-23) is produced in us.

James comes at his subject in a little different way. But his conclusions are in harmony with the rest of the New Testament. He sees faith and works in the Christian life to be, as it were, two sides of the same coin. Every Christian needs his "B.A. degree"–belief and action, because true biblical faith will affect how we live. It's a belief that behaves. If it is not, it's a "dead" kind of faith, and not true biblical faith at all. Therefore (James 1:22), "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves."

What has sometimes caused confusion is that James, possibly penning his letter 10 years before Paul wrote Romans, uses the word "justified" in a different way from what Paul does later. For Paul, it is a legal term, meaning pronounced or declared righteous. When we put our faith in Christ, our sins are charged to His account (and He fully paid our debt on Calvary), and, as the other side of it, His righteousness is credited to our account (II Cor. 5:21). Since we have Christ's perfect righteousness "imputed" to us (to use the Bible's word), we can be declared righteous by a holy God (cf. Rom. 4:4-6).

And James certainly agrees that righteousness is imputed (or credited to our heavenly account) through faith (Jas. 2:23). But he does not make the same use of the word "justified" in his epistle. He is speaking of our claim to faith being validated. We say we have faith in God, but is our claim justified before others? It will be proven through the changes wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Our behaviour will justify, or attest to, our assertion that we have faith. ("By their fruits you will know them," Matt. 7:20.) So James says, "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (Jas. 2:24).

To combine the two uses of justification we could say: When He saves us, God credits us with the righteousness of Christ, and declares us righteous. Our claim to faith in Christ is demonstrated and confirmed before others by the changes in our lives as we grow in grace, changes brought about by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

"O joy of the justified, joy of the free! / I'm washed in the crimson tide opened for me; / In Christ, my Redeemer, rejoicing I stand, / And point to the print of the nail in His hand" (Francis Bottome).