…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:23-25
God deserves justice. Because of our sinful condition and ensuing sinful actions, though, our impending day in God’s proverbial courtroom seems utterly hopeless for anything other than a guilty verdict and a sentence to eternity in the torments of hell. In light of our obvious guilt, if God were to declare us anything but guilty, he would cease to be a just and good God. God himself says that he “will not acquit the wicked.”1
Guilty sinners would likely prefer that God simply overlook their offenses against him. To do so, however, would by definition render God unjust, unholy, and unrighteous, which is impossible because he is always just, holy, and righteous.
Clearly, God does not owe us anything. If we were to spend forever in the torments of hell as guilty and condemned sinners, we would have simply gotten what we deserved. Pondering this same point, Job asks, “But how can a man be in the right before God?”2
Thankfully, God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, loving, faithful, and willing to forgive.3 Thus, the dilemma is this: how could God justify us and remain just?
The answer is the doctrine of justification: guilty sinners can be declared righteous before God by grace alone through faith alone because of the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. Justification is mentioned more than two hundred times in various ways throughout the New Testament alone.
The penalty of sin is death. God warned Adam in the garden that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”4 Paul confirms this: “they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die.”5 The amazing truth is that God himself, the second person of the Trinity, paid our debt of death in our place.
Additionally, not only did Jesus take all our sins (past, present, and future) on the cross, but he also gave to us his perfect righteousness as a faultless and sinless person.6 This is why Paul says that Jesus alone is our righteousness.7 Therefore, justification through the work of Jesus Christ in our place for our sins on the cross is only possible by grace from Jesus Christ alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, because of Jesus Christ alone.
There is absolutely nothing we can do to contribute to our justification. When Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross, he was declaring that all that needed to be done for our justification was completed in him. For this reason, Titus 3:7 speaks of “being justified by his grace.”
Furthermore, Romans 5:16–17 says: The free gift is not like the result of that one man’s [Adam’s] sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
To be justified means to trust only in the person and work of Jesus and no one and nothing else as the object of our faith, righteousness, and justification before God.8
Because we were created for righteousness, people continue to yearn for righteousness. However, we sinfully pursue it through self-righteousness.9 Self-righteousness exists in both irreligious and religious forms.
Irreligious self-righteousness includes the attempts to justify one’s decency through everything from social causes to political involvement and being a good steward of the planet. Religious self-righteousness is the pursuit of personal righteousness through our own attempts to live by God’s laws in addition to our own rules.
Regarding such vain attempts at self-righteousness, Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”10 No one has been more religiously devoted than the Pharisees who, for example, actually tithed out of their spice rack in an effort to be certain that they gave God a tenth of literally all they had. Still, our attempts at self-righteousness are simply repugnant to God.11
On the cross what Martin Luther liked to call the “great exchange” occurred. Jesus took our sin and gave us his righteousness. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Unlike the self-righteousness of religion, gift righteousness is not something we bring to God to impress him, but rather something that God does in us and we receive as a gift by personal faith in him alone. It gives us a new identity as child of God, a new nature through new birth, a new power which is the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, and a new community, the church. The goal and final outcome of his working will be the full Christ like righteousness of the people of God individually and as a Spirit unified community.
The gifted righteousness of Jesus is imparted to us at the time of faith, simultaneous with our justification. Not only does God give us family status, but he also gives us new power and a new heart through the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is what theologians call regeneration. Therefore, we not only have a new status by virtue of being justified, but we also have a new heart from which new desires for holiness flow and a new power through God the Holy Spirit to live like, for, and with Jesus.
Finally, in saying that righteousness comes from Jesus alone and by virtue of none of our good works, we are not advocating a kind of lawless Christianity where we are permitted to live in unrepentant and ongoing sin, unconcerned about whether we are living righteously. Rather, we are saying that only by understanding the righteousness of Jesus Christ in us can we live holy lives out of his righteousness as our new status as Christians.
Have you received Jesus Christ as God’s gift to you? Who in your life do you need to share the good news of Jesus Christ with?