A Threefold Justification
by Mitch Cervinka


The word justification denotes a declaration that one is righteous. This declaration may take the form of a judge's pronouncement of "Not guilty!" or of the presentation of key evidence which proves the innocence of the defendant. The death of Christ includes these two meanings, but adds another: that of making a guilty man righteous before God.

In Scripture, there are three significant ways in which the Christian is said to be justified. They are distinguished by the audience of the declaration and by the basis of the justification:

    1. In the eternal sight of God: by the blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:9).
    2. In the Christian's own experience: by the faith imparted to him by God (Romans 5:1).
    3. In the sight of others: by the works which flow from faith (James 2:24).
Only the first of these three delivers us from the eternal wrath of God. It is in this sense alone that a sinner is made righteous before God. The other two are God's declaration to us and to others that the Christian has been accepted by God.

Justification before God. The sinner's greatest need is to be made perfectly righteous in the sight of the infinitely holy God. Without a perfect righteousness, we deserve eternal hell, and God, in His perfect justice, is obliged to give us just what we deserve.

God has met this need for His elect by giving up His own precious, dearly-loved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to go to the cross of Calvary to suffer and die as our Substitute, bearing the full punishment for our sins. As Romans 5:9 states, we have "… been justified by His blood …"

Notice that Scripture never says that we are justified by some mixture of Christ's blood and our faith. The death that Christ died secured the salvation of all God's elect for time and eternity. Our salvation is contingent upon nothing else.

2 Corinthians 5:21 – He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Justification in our own experience.
Romans 5:1 – … we have been justified through faith …
Why then does Scripture so often say that we are justified by faith? We need to recognize that faith is given to us by God, according to His own sovereign good pleasure:
Ephesians 2:4-5 – But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

Ephesians 2:8-10 – For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship …

Faith is thus the initial and lasting evidence that we are numbered among the elect of God. When God grants faith to us, it is His declaration to us that we are His own children.

Romans 4:1-3 discusses what Abraham had found…

Romans 4:1-3 – What then shall we say that Abraham … has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS."
Abraham discovered that he had a righteous standing before God, not based on his own works, but based upon God's righteousness in Christ. His faith in God's provision of righteousness demonstrated that he was accepted by God, possessing an imputed righteousness from God. Abraham discovered himself to have this righteous standing when he first trusted in God. His faith, like the faith of every true believer, was given to him by God.

Justification before Others.
James 2:24 – a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
James 2:24 has been a stumbling block to many because it says that we are justified by works, and not by faith alone. It is important, however, that we read the context of the verse to see who is the audience of this justification:
James 2:18 – But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
James is addressing the issue of justification from the standpoint of how others see us. I cannot see your faith, but I can see the works which flow from your faith. This is the point of James' statement "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do."

God knows our hearts (Acts 15:8), but man must look on the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7). If James had been speaking of the same justification which Paul describes in Romans 4:5, he would be contradicting Paul, who says that we are justified by faith apart from works:

Romans 4:5 – But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,
This is all the more significant in view of the fact that Paul and James are both using Abraham as their example of how a person is justified. Abraham was just one man! He was either justified by faith apart from works, or else he was justified by what he does. Paul and James cannot be describing the same justification.

The solution is that the audience of the justification is different in the two cases. Paul is telling us how Abraham discovered himself to be righteous in God's sight, while James is telling us how others recognize us as children of God.


We should not suppose that the Bible limits the term justify only to our justification before God. Justification before God is an important Biblical concept, and it was accomplished by the blood of Christ, alone! Christ's death not only declared us to be righteous–it made us righteous.

Other uses of the term justify refer to (1) God's declaration to the individual, by imparting faith to him, that Christ has justified him, and (2) God's declaration to others, by the godly works which flow from saving faith, that Christ has justified the individual.

Praise God that He made us righteous by the blood of Christ; that He revealed individually to us, by faith, that we possess this righteousness; and that He daily displays to others, through our godly works, that we belong to Him!

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