In a more formal sense, justification is a legal term. Something that is justifiable is shown to be “just, right, or reasonable.” (Merriam-Webster). It’s that which absolves us of guilt. If the scales of justice were truly balance, our reasons/excuses would counterbalance the bad things we’ve done.
When Paul wrote in Romans 1 that Gods’ wrath is being revealed against godlessness (our broken relationship with God) and wickedness (our broken relationships with others), he gave quite a list of things: sexual activity outside of God’s design; injustice; criminal activity; lusting for more; mean, aggressive attitudes; gladness when others suffer; intentional homicide; the love of quarreling; deceit; exploitation; craftiness; destruction of reputations and character; fighting God’s will; enjoying doing wrong and hurting others; ego and arrogance; rebellion against authority; unwillingness to think and act rationally; untrustworthiness; heartlessness/mercilessness; and enablement of all the above.
In all these cases, the people were worshipping “the creature more than the creator.” It’s idolatry. An idol is something other than God that you think justifies your life choices – or even your life. By the end of Romans 1, Paul’s Jewish readers were probably nodding their heads and thinking, “Oh, yeah. Let the judgment roll! Godless, idolatrous heathens…” Then Paul starts Chapter Two this way (and I paraphrase Romans 2: 1-8):
“All of you Jewish people who are reading this and judging? You do the same things as part of the habit and routine of your life. Why do you think you should avoid being judged? It appears that you think God’s kindness, mercy and patience are insignificant and contemptible. If you thought they mattered – if you understood the depth of your depravity and the cost of Christ’s love – you would have repented from your sins. You would be changed. Instead, you’re stubborn, unrepentant, people who choose idols. You are going to face the same wrath of God as the people you so smugly judge.”
What were these idols, these justifications? We see the list beginning in Romans 2:17:
- “But I’m a Jew”
- “But I trust/rely on the Law”
- “But I am close to God”
- “But I have lived in God’s will and I approve of it fully”
- “ But I knew every detail of the law”
- “But I am a guide to the morally blind”
- “But I am a source of radiance to sinners in darkness”
- “But I am a wise instructor of the foolish”
This is not a bad list in and of itself. But it had turned into idolatry of a different kind. These were things the Jewish readers thought were “just, right, and reasonable” and would make them okay:
- “You call yourself a Jew” – the Idol of Nationality
- “You trust/rely on the law” – the Idol of Moralism (Moses)
- “You brag about being close to God” – the Idol of Identity (Abraham and the covenant)
- “You know his will and approve of it” – the Idol of Self-Righteousness
- “You know ever detail of the law” – the Idol of Knowledge
- “You are a guide to the morally blind; a source of radiance to sinners in darkness; a wise instructor of the foolish” – the Idol of My Amazing Self
All the things that they thought made them “just, right and reasonable” - their opinions of themselves, their reputation, their place in their community and in the eyes of God – had all become idols that were showing them to be unjust, wrong, unreasonable, and frankly unlikable. No wonder Paul says: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24). The fact that God’s name was blasphemed would hardly have surprised them. But the fact that God’s name was blasphemed because of them? That’s…intimidating. Depressing. Deflating. That will knock your spiritual legs out from under you.
Paul did not sign off his letter at that point. He’s working his way toward a gospel message of hope and restoration. But they wouldn’t understand the beauty of God’s justification until they saw the worthlessness of their own attempts at justification.
We can be like the Roman Christians. We can hear about the Romans 1 sins and be in complete agreement: “That is so wrong.” We want the picket lines and sermons and blogs and news stories and campaigns and conferences about abortion, and sexual sin, the breakdown of the family, unjust taxation and the murder rate in Detroit and exploitation. Of course God’s wrath is for that. Thank God I’m not in their position. But you are. We all are.
We have harmed children (with our words and attitude). We have given in to sexual sin. We have contributed to the brokenness of our own family. We have used other people. We have been dishonest with our money. We have gossiped. We have chosen to be blind and irrational about our choices. We have been untrustworthy. We have secretly taken pleasure in the embarrassment or failure of others.
Paul says God could use our own deeds will judge us (Romans 2). All God would have to do at Judgment Day is play back a record of the moral standard to which we held others and judge us by it.
All the times we said, “That’s wrong. That’s gross. That’s out of God’s will or design. That’s against nature. That’s ignorant. That’s mean. That’s self-centered and cruel. That’s using people.”
All times I said to my wife, “Be more patient with the kids.”
All the times I told my kids, “You are not using your time wisely!”
All the times I have thought, “He needs more self-control.”
All the times I thought, “Wow, she was really inconsiderate.”
God could just take my quotes and match it to my life. Guilty. Sometimes, God name is blasphemed because of us. Our justifications won’t matter. “But look at my theology and doctrine. My great emotional experiences! My spiritual disciplines! My good moral decisions! My godly kids! My reputation! Those make me okay! I am surely justified.” If you think that, you are an idolater. You are worshipping what you have done and what you have to offer; you are trying to justify yourself and make yourself righteous and acceptable to God and others by your own merit. But Paul says (Romans 3:10 and following):
- “No one is righteous” – legal condemnation of guilt
- “No one understands” –blind to truth
- “No one seeks God” – bad motives
- “All have turned away” – broken wills
- “Our throats are open graves” – words betray inner decay
- “We are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery mark our way, and we don’t know peace.” - we leave a trail of destruction
- “We have no fear of God.” – if we did, we would take life more seriously
We have to understand how unjustifiable we are before we can understand the beauty of what Christ offers to us. We must fully acknowledge that we are the worst sinner we know (that’s how Paul saw himself in 1 Timothy 1:15). Charles Simeon, a preacher from the 18th and 19th century, wrote, “There are but two objects that I have ever desired…to behold; the one is my own vileness; and the other is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And I have always thought that they should be viewed together.” This bring us to the good news of genuine justification.
“But God has a way to make people right with him without the law, and he has now shown us that way which the law and the prophets told us about. God makes people righteous through their faith in Jesus Christ. This is true for all who believe in Christ, because all people are the same: Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard, and all need to be justified by his grace, which is a free gift.
They need to be made free from sin through Jesus Christ. God sent him to die in our place to take away our sins. We receive forgiveness through faith in the blood of Jesus’ death. This showed that God always does what is right and fair, as in the past when he was patient and did not punish people for their sins. And God gave Jesus to show today that he does what is right. God did this so he could judge rightly and so he could make right any person who has faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:21-26)
This is the “gospel, or “good news.” It literally means “good herald.” It’s from the word angeloi, which referred to a man whom the emperor would send from a battlefield to declare victory.The gospel is not advice to show us what we are supposed to do to be righteous and justified; it's the good news of what Christ has done so we can be righteous and justified.
On our own, we are dead in our sins; we owe a debt that we cannot pay; we can never do enough to justify our life. But Christ paid the debt. This good news is for us, but it’s not about us. It’s about Christ. Because of the sacrifice of a Christ who loves us, all our sins, flaws, failures, inabilities, and weaknesses are not only balanced, they are swept off the scales.
In Romans 4:7-8, Paul quotes David from Psalm 32. “Blessed are those whose wrongs have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the person whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” Paul and David did not say, “Blessed are those who do not sin, and who through obedience avoid sin.” They said people were blessed when their sins were covered, and God did not charge to their account what they deserved.
Christ has made it possible for every terrible thing we do in life to be made right. He will balance the legal scale of justice. Because of Christ, we are made right (“righteousness”) and good. That is our only justification.
“Since we have been justified through faith in Christ, we are able to experience true and lasting peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King. Jesus leads us into a place of radical grace where we are able to celebrate the hope of experiencing God’s glory.
But think about this: while we were wasting our lives in sin, God revealed His powerful love to us in a tangible display—the Anointed One died for us. As a result, the blood of Jesus has made us right with God now, and certainly we will be rescued by Him from God’s wrath in the future. If we were in the heat of combat with God when His Son reconciled us by laying down His life, then how much more will we be saved by Jesus’ resurrection life? In fact, we stand now reconciled and at peace with God. That’s why we celebrate in God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed.” (Romans 5:1-2; 8-11 - The Voice)