Often, when we think about the doctrine of salvation, we mean the specific aspect of salvation called justification.
Justification is the aspect of salvation where we are declared righteous by God.
The doctrine of justification was seminal to Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther struggled regarding salvation for years. He sought to be justified (made right with God) through his works. This is the basic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and was certainly Luther’s primary understanding prior to his conversion. For Roman Catholics, the works that justify are the sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist, etc.) By participating in these sacraments, the good Catholic is supposed to be justified, that is made right with God. Luther’s problem was that he was a consistent confessor of his sins and an effective participant in these sacraments, yet had not experienced salvation. He had no peace or assurance that he had been forgiven.
Luther’s turning point (and indeed the significant turning point in the Protestant Reformation) was Habakkuk 2:4 quoted in Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.” Like a lightning bolt, Luther understood. One could not be justified by works or good deeds. Rather, justification came by faith alone.
Justification by faith alone initiated the Reformation emphasis of the five solas. Salvation is through Christ alone, by grace alone, in faith alone, from Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.
Paul details the doctrine of justification further in Romans 3.
20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.Romans 3:20-26, emphasis mine.
Justification comes by God through Christ’s work on the cross. Justification was earned by Christ. It is a gift of grace to the believer. It is received by faith.
You might ask, “Why doesn’t God just unilaterally forgive sin? Why did God need to go through the terrible judgment of the cross and judge our sin through Christ?”
Think about God as a Judge. He will one day judge every person who has walked planet earth. Could he just wipe away sin? I guess he could, but what kind of judge would he be if he just wiped away our sins? Consider a court of law. Imagine if a murderer were facing a judge. The murderer was evidentially and admittedly guilty of the crime. There was no challenging his guilt; he was guilty of his crime. But when standing before the judge, the judge pronounced him innocent and let him walk away. The judge said something like this, “The evidence is here. I’ve seen it. I choose to ignore the evidence and the guilt. I pronounce you innocent. You may go your way.” What confidence could we have in that judge or that judicial system? This is not what it means to be justified before God.
God, the Father, our Judge, has seen our sin and wickedness—with perfect clarity. Our guilt and sin are against God. He’s the One who has judged us guilty. But then God does something unique and wonderful. In the midst of his indescribable holiness, in the depth of our sinful depravity, in the truth and justice of our sinful guilt, God the Father does justify us (declare us right before him). He is able to do so, not because he unilaterally declares us innocent, but because he sent Jesus to take our place. Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s judgment on sin. As such, God did punish sin. He punished Christ for our sin. So when God declares us justified, he does so on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross that paid the penalty for our sin.
Justification is an act of God through Jesus Christ. It is a gift of grace, not merited by our works, but solely by Christ’s works. It is received by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Justification motivates us to receive the glorious gift of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:24-25). If you haven’t received the gift of salvation, consider trusting in Jesus Christ today.
Justification provides us ample reason to praise God. Your salvation is not by your own deeds or from your own goodness. It is a gracious gift of God that reveals the unfathomable depth of God’s mercy and grace.