It may be called, perhaps, the “Divine dilemma.” Jehovah is absolute in His holiness and therefore can have nothing to do with sin (Hab. 1:13). Sin, in fact, stands as a barrier between God and man (Isa. 59:1-2). It is a violation of God’s law (1 John 3:4) and, because God is absolute in His justice as well as His holiness, He must punish it (Rom. 3:23). And yet, this is not His desire. He “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He “desires all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) so that “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:18). But how can this be? How can a holy God forgive sinful humanity while staying consistent with His nature? The answer lies within the Bible’s word, justification.
The words “Justified” and “Justification” belong to the same family of Greek terms as the words “Righteous” and “Righteousness.” The term is primarily legal in nature. In classical Greek it “relate[s] to the law court and the act of acquitting or vindicating someone. It has to do with the innocence or virtue of a person. But more broadly it has to do with the norm of any relationship.” The idea would be to “set right” or “hold or deem right.” In the New Testament the word is most often used in the sense of being declared “free from all charges.” Consider passages such as Romans 3:20, 24, 28; 4:2; 5:1, and 9. Justification, then, is the legal standing that results from the process of being justified. When one violates God’s law he stands before the Judge of all the Earth (Gen. 18:25) guilty as a condemned criminal (cf. Rom. 3:19). The Judge may then justify him, or declare him to be righteous, or acquitted from all charges set against him. The sinner no longer has to endure the penalty due him for his transgression. The process is commonly described as being declared “just-if-I’d-never-sinned.”
Justification is the key point of the book of Romans, in which Paul not only defines the concept but also explain how it is made possible. Justification is not something that can be accessed on humanity’s terms. Romans 3:19-20 says,
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is knowledge of sin.
The Jewish mentality was that right standing before God could be attained by the flesh. That is, by law keeping, observing traditions, circumcision, physical connection to Abraham, and many other forms of “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s,” Paul made clear that such was not the case. No amount of human ingenuity can trigger the process of justification. Rather, right standing before God is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22) as we are “justified freely by His grace” (Rom. 3:24). God has a system, or process, by which He declares men to be right, and that is the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17). God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:16; 3:22) has to do with the way that God makes men right as opposed to any system, or process, invented in the mind of man. The gospel is designed to produce an obedient faith within man as it is proclaimed (Rom. 1:5; 10:17). Man then responds in faithful obedience (Rom. 3:28; 4:5; 6:1-11) at which point God declares him to be justified (just-if-I’d-never-sinned). This is made possible by His grace. Jehovah was not indebted to save, He chose to do so and thus offered the plan and terms of pardon to humanity. Those who suggested that justification is earned or that man is required to do nothing whatsoever, gravely err.
Another term that should be considered alongside justification is propitiation. Romans 3:24-26 teaches that we are “justified freely by His grace” through Christ “whom God has set forth to be a propitiation…” “that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Consider again the dilemma with which this discussion began. God’s character demands that transgression be punished, and yet He desires not to punish but to pardon–to declare humanity, the spiritual criminal, to be free from all charges. But how can the Judge declare the criminal to be free from all charges and continue to be a just? Imagine one who committed a grave crime against you being acquitted. Any judge who would do such a thing we would rightly describe as unjust because transgression demands punishment (Rom. 6:23)! Propitiation is the answer. The term means “wrath appeaser.” Jesus stood in our place and absorbed the penalty for our sins. Jehovah can pardon us from the penalty of sin because Jesus endured it on our behalf. Thus God can justify while still being just.
The process and result of justification can well be seen in Romans 5:1-2. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Justification is that act by which God declares man to be right, acquitted from all charges. That declaration occurs when man responds “by faith”–that is not approaching God on mans terms, but on Gods, and responding to His terms obediently. The result is a peaceful, harmonious relationship with God. The enmity which existed because of sin has been done away. Therefore, we stand, having gained access into “this grace”–the ability to be right with God–and we rejoice. Thank God for the ability to stand before Him “just-if-I’d-never-sinned.”