Volume 9, Issue 5: Stauron
His Justifying Cross
He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.
The Lord hates men who justify the wicked. They are an abomination to Him, Solomon writes. It is wicked to justify the wicked, for God would have men judge with honesty, justifying the righteous and condemning the unrighteous (Deut. 25:1). To justify an ungodly man is clearly contrary to God's absolute and holy standards.
How then are we to understand Romans 4:5 and other such verses, which declare with equal clarity that God does indeed justify the ungodly? How can God be one both "forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin," while at the same time "by no means clearing the guilty" (Exod. 34:7)? How can He be both "just and the justifier" (Rom. 3:26)? How can God justify the wicked, and yet condemn men for doing the same?
Someone could respond, "All you are asking is, how can God do what man cannot do?" Quite simple, we might be tempted to say: "He is God, we are not. He can do many things that we cannot do." But this answer is surely incomplete. We are not simply asking how is it possible for God to do this, but how is it possible for him to do this righteously, this act which he declares an abomination for a man to do?
Part of the difficulty comes from an incomplete understanding of justification. Justification has been defined as a legal declaration of righteousness. It is a forensic act, external to the one being justified. Now this is clearly seen from the verses referred to above. When a judge justifies the accused, he declares him righteous in terms of the law. He simply pronounces what he finds to be the case; he does not make the person righteous on the inside. It is objective, not subjective. When Paul writes, "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is he who condemns?" (Rom. 8:33-34), he is asking who can bring an accusation against those whom God has declared to be righteous.
But the justification of the wicked by God is not legal fiction. God cannot lie; He does not declare what is not the case. The concept of justification as solely a declaration of righteousness is incomplete. When God declares a sinner righteous His pronouncement is true, for He causes it to be true. How? Not by doing something in man, but by doing something for man.
We must be very careful here, for we could easily confuse justification with sanctification, believing that God first renews the inward man, infusing righteousness into him, and then He declares what He sees, a man who is inwardly righteous. But here is the problem: such righteousness in a person is always imperfect and mixed with sin, but God requires perfection.
Is faith the ground of our justification? Does God justify us because of our faith? Does He look upon our act of belief in Him, and accept that act as righteousness? No, the Scriptures do not speak this way either, for this would simply make faith a work. The Scriptures speak of us being justified by faith or through faith, but never because of faith (see Rom. 3:22; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:8; Phil 3:9). What then is this missing element of justification, which maintains it as a declaration of righteousness, but a declaration which is true by faith? What has God done for man, rather than in man, by which we are justified?
The missing element is the object of the justifying faith, the One in whom faith is placed: namely, the Lord Jesus Christ, who by His death on the cross has become our justification. "Therefore, just as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life" (Rom. 5:18). The ground of our justification is therefore the righteousness of Christ, the righteousness which He worked through His crucifixion. We are declared righteous, not by what we do, but by what He has done for us. And when we put our faith in Him who died for us, His righteousness is given to us, "even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe" (Rom. 3:22).
So we see that justification is both an imputation and a declaration. John Murray gives this more complete definition: "Justification is therefore a constitutive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is
imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God's sight."[*] Jesus Christ lived and died in perfect obedience. This obedience, rather than an obedience of our own, is what God considers when He pronounces sinners righteous. The obedience of Christ is an objective righteousness, outside of the sinner, which is credited to him.
Thus by faith we rest in the perfect righteousness of Another. We look away from ourselves and toward God, that like Paul we may "be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith" (Phil. 3:9). We look away from ourselves to the justifying cross, whereby God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.