judgment

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.

On more occasions than I can count I have uttered the sentence, “Jesus died for our sins.” That Jesus died for our sins is the crux of the gospel. The glory of that sentence, “Jesus died for our sins” is even more meaningful than we often imagine. Jesus’ death atoned for our sins.

The atonement is a theological term meaning the satisfaction of divine justice in Jesus’ act of obedience on the cross.

Theological liberalism is embarrassed by the concept of divine wrath against sin and has avoided a theologically robust definition of the atonement. As Christians, we must grasp the truth of the atonement to better understand the glory of our salvation.

The Bible teaches the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Don’t be intimidated by these terms. Penal means that we are sinful, and that our sins deserve punishment. Substitutionary means that Jesus took our place when he atoned for our sins by taking the punishment we deserve.

In his excellent book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott underscored the importance of this doctrine.

All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and humanity. If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to his, then of course we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge that we are, namely “hell-deserving sinners,” then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.

Stott, Cross, 111

The biblical doctrine of the atonement reminds us of three staggering truths that are deeper than we will ever fully grasp this side of eternity.

  1. God is more holy than we imagine.
  2. We are more sinful than we think.
  3. Jesus loves us more deeply than we deserve.

The atonement emphasizes God’s wrath against sin. The Bible is full of divine judgment against sin. From Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden, to the flood, to the plagues on Egypt, to the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, to the judgments and exiles upon Israel, to the cross, and through to the judgments described in the book of Revelation, the Bible is a book that declares judgment. Why does God judge so often? Well, God is supremely holy. He is more holy than we can imagine, and his standard for humanity is absolute perfection and holiness.

The other reason the Bible describes God’s judgments so often is that we are sinful. We are more sinful than we’d like to admit. Our motivations, desires, and longings are sinful. Our actions and dreams and words and ways are sinful. We are sinful.

Our sin deserves judgment. Thus, the cross and the penal substitutionary atonement. Jesus took our place, received in his body the punishment for our sins, and satisfied God’s wrath against sin (penal substitutionary atonement). Jesus’ death on the cross shouts loudly the staggering love of God for sinners.

At the cross in holy love God through Christ paid the full penalty of our disobedience himself. He bore the judgment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. On the cross divine mercy and justice were equally expressed and eternally reconciled. God’s holy love was ‘satisfied.

Stott, Cross, 91.

What do we do with this glorious theological truth?

  • Meditate on the holiness of God.
  • Thank God for sending Jesus to take your place.
  • Worship God for the depth of his love.
  • Love God because he so loved you.
  • Follow Christ with your life because this is the only appropriate response to the atonement.

Photo by Luis Vidal on Unsplash