What on earth is “justification”?

Last Sunday’s sermon was on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. In this passage the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian church that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. At first blush, bad news for all of us who are born unrighteous! But then comes the good news:

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

This beautiful sentence explains in great detail how we unrighteous actually come to inherit the kingdom of God. There are three things Paul mentions here–washing, sanctification, and justification–but I’d like to talk briefly about justification. This word gets used frequently in the church, but I often wonder how many of us know what the word means biblically. Even those who do would benefit from reflecting on the beauty of this act of God!

Justification: what is it?

First, justification is a legal term that means, in essence, to declare someone righteousLouis Berkhof, a Reformed theologian from the late 19th century, said it well in his Systematic Theology:

Justification is a judicial act of God, in which He declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that all the claims of the law are satisfied with respect to the sinner.

What isn’t it?

Justification is not sanctification. That seems obvious, because they are different words. But they get so easily confused! Hopefully we can clear up a bit of the confusion. Justification is a one-time act, whereas sanctification is a process. You can never be more justified or increase in justification, but a Christian ought always to be increasing in sanctification. Again, Berkhof lays out a helpful distinction for us between justification and sanctification:

Justification removes the guilt of sin and restores the sinner to all the filial rights involved in his state as a child of God, including an eternal inheritance. Sanctification removes the pollution of sin and renews the sinner ever-increasingly in conformity with the image of God.

Lastly, we are not made more righteous by justification. It does not mean to change something from unrighteous to righteous; Proverbs 17:15 alone shows us that this cannot be the case. The idea that justification is to “make righteous” is a Roman Catholic doctrine, that we call “infused righteousness.”  Rather, the term “imputed righteousness” is used to describe essentially how we don Christ’s righteousness as we would a cloak. Because of that imputation, when God judges us he looks at us and sees his Son’s righteousness. See Philippians 3:8b, 9:

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith

Justification: a great comfort

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1, 2)

The topic of justification is a massive and far-reaching one, and was pivotal in the reformation of the 16th century. There is far more to say than I could ever convey in a blog post, but don’t hesitate to ask if you’d like more information, or if you would like to be directed toward more thorough resources. I hope this has been of some help!


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