What does justification mean? How can we be forgiven?

What does justification mean? How can we be forgiven? June 7, 2024

Lady Justice. Blind with her scales.
Justice according to the Bible is not about weighing up how much good and evil we have done


Justification is a legal term which means “declared not guilty”. It is how God can forgive us our sins and still be a just judge.  It is not that God instantaneously changes us and makes us completely holy and sinless, but it is rather a declaration that God has changed our status because he credits Jesus’ perfect righteousness to our account. We are justified because we are incorporated into the people of God and have been made pure because of our connection with our risen Head, Jesus.

Our justification was purchased by the punishment that Jesus received on the cross. As Isaiah says, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace . . . the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . . Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief . . . his soul makes an offering for guilt” (Isaiah 53:5–10).

Death is not merely a natural phenomenon but a punishment for sin, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Thus, we understand Jesus was taking our punishment since the sinless one did not deserve to die.

Our salvation depends not on good works or on any merit that God sees in us but rather on his free, undeserved mercy and grace. We do not contribute anything to our salvation but come to God with empty hands and a humble heart, asking for forgiveness. We are saved through the means of our faith.

We will be no more justified then than we are already now. No future act of obedience will make God more pleased with us or make us more saved than we are now. Yes, the full effects of our justification will only be ours in that glorious future, but we can also taste the reality of our salvation right now as our standing before God is entirely the same.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can have confidence that we too will be raised. The resurrection causes in us the faith that saves, and it is faith in the resurrection itself that saves.

According to Romans, the substance of a saving response to God consists of a declaration of the lordship of Jesus, which presumably includes both his divinity and his right to rule over our lives, and faith in the fact of the resurrection. Thus Jesus’ resurrection is in this sense the source of the faith that is the grounds of our justification: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

It is important that we understand Jesus’ status on the cross. Two things were simultaneously true. He was still the only sinless man who had ever lived. He had not committed any wrong and had lived a life of righteousness that had warranted merit and reward from God. He, however, also took our sin and bore our punishment. He always remained the holy Son of God who was unstained by sin. Yet he was voluntarily “made” sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and so was simultaneously subject to the wrath, rejection, and punishment of God.

Yet his Father never stopped loving him. God did not permanently reject him. Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” because at that moment it was as though a rift had opened in the Trinity and God really did turn his back on him. However, the Trinity did not in any sense break up. Some ask, how could God be displeased with his Son on the cross? The answer is that God was displeased with the sin that Jesus was carrying but remained pleased with Jesus’ infinite goodness, which was greater than that sin. Jesus bore the wrath of God against our sin, which had been imputed to him.

Jesus had turned away God’s wrath, he had destroyed sin, our guilt could now be taken away, and we could be counted righteous. If the cross was Jesus’ payment for our sins, then the resurrection marked God’s acceptance of that payment.

Jesus is declared to still be righteous by his resurrection, just as he was declared to have become sin by his death. God’s wrath has been satisfied. Jesus resurrection was God justifying him, declaring him to be righteous. We get to share in that not guilty verdict and have our sins forgiven

The resurrection of Jesus has justifying power. Despite our usual understanding that the cross alone is responsible for our forgiveness, Paul is elsewhere very clear. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). We share in the justification of Jesus. Because of his right standing with God, his people are made righteous too.

Unless Jesus himself had been justified, it is impossible to see how we could have been. If he could not even save himself, how could he save others?

The resurrection shows the positive delight of God in his Son, which is now shared by us.

Many people think of salvation as the removal of our sin and its punishment. If Jesus had only wiped the slate clean, forgiven our wrongdoing, and taken the wrath God had for us, we would be left in a neutral position. We would no longer be under God’s displeasure, but he would not be pleased with us either. Many Christians, even if they do not articulate their theology like that, certainly live as though it was true. Many live as though they must still work to please God.

Jesus was so full of merit that not only did he have enough righteousness to cancel out our sin and enough that he deserved to be raised from the dead, but he still had abundantly more credit remaining in his account. As a result, our justification consists not just of a canceling of our debt, but also of an imputing to us of the righteousness of Christ.

It is not only “just as if I’d never sinned,” but also “just as if I’d already completed a perfect life.” Jesus doesn’t merely give us a clean slate and then sit back and watch whether we will mess it up again.

If you think of sin as producing an overdraft, Jesus takes over our bank account and pays off our debt. He then gives us access to his own account which holds so much money that no matter how much sin we commit we could never exhaust the supply.

This all sounds dangerous, and it sounds like Christians need not care about being good because God sees them as good already. But lets be clear that those who know they have been the recipients of such amazing grace know that Jesus loves them exactly as they are, but that he also loves them too much to leave them as they are. As a result, they do not live in such a way as to scorn the giver.




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About Adrian Warnock
Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor. He worked as a psychiatrist and in the pharmaceutical industry on clinical trials. He has been a Christian writer since 2003 and is a published author. Alongside his career Adrian also served on a church leadership team. He was diagnosed with blood cancer in May 2017 and is the founder of Blood Cancer Uncensored an online patient support group. Adrian is passionate about helping people learn to approach suffering with hope and compassion. Adrian qualified in 1995 with an MB BS medical degree from London University (in the USA this would be called an MD). Adrian also has post graduate qualifications in both Psychiatry (MRCPsych) and Pharmaceutical Medicine (MFFM and DipPharmMed). He studied theology through courses organised by Newfrontiers. You can read more about the author here.
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