The Righter Report

Justification by Faith – How believers are declared righteous by God

by Pete Righter

How are people declared righteous and saved by God? Is it by faith, or by works? The answer from the Bible is clear. But first we have to understand what justification is:

Justification: “1: the act, process, or state of being justified by God; 2. the act or an instance of justifying.” (Websters Dictionary)

Justification: “To justify or make just, by which sanctification is included under justification; to set right; correct a wrong thing done; to deem right or approve. Justification is, in Pauline language, synonymous with reconciliation. God is not imputing to men their trespasses, but declaring them righteous. The means (of justification) is the vicarious expiatory death of Jesus Christ. The sole condition is faith … in Jesus Christ.” (Hastings Bible Dictionary)

Justification: “To prove or show to be just; to vindicate as right; to declare free from guilt or blame; to absolve, to clear; to pardon or clear from guilt; to acquit; declare righteous; pronounce sentence of acceptance.”

Bible scholar Kevin J. Conner goes on to quote J.R. Gregory (“The Theological Student”), who defines justification as, ‘That act of God by which He accepts as righteous the penitent sinner who believes on Christ for salvation.”

With the above definitions and quotes as our starting point, we can now delve into one of the most dynamic and unselfish works in the history of creation – the work of God / Jesus Christ, who became our righteousness because we had none of our own. Conner explains it this way:

“When Adam sinned, all that he was and all that he did was ‘imputed’ to the whole, unborn human race. Sin left a debit on the books (Genesis 3:1-16; 2:17; Romans 5:12; 6:23). In Adam all sinned, and all died, spiritually and physically (I Corinthians 15:22). When Christ died on Calvary, the sin of Adam and the whole human race was ‘imputed,’ or put to Christs’ account. And because God imputed our sin to Christ, He suffered our penalty, which was death. All our liabilities were transferred to Him….(and) Christ’s righteousness was ‘imputed’ to us. His righteousness is credited to us, put to our account (Psalm 32:8; Romans 4:8). Justification pronounces the sinner legally innocent, freeing him from condemnation.”

Romans chapters 3-4 contain the magnificent statements of justification for those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 3:21-22 states:

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from (observing) the
law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets
testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in
Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

A few sentences later, Paul declares, “For we maintain that a man is justified (righteous in the eyes of God) by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:28)

In Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem makes the point that, “the word ‘justify’ in the Bible indicates that justification is a legal declaration by God. Paul says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Romans 8:33-34). Grudem continues, “In God’s legal declaration of justification, He specifically declares that we are just in His sight. This (legal) declaration involves two aspects. First, it means that we have no penalty to pay for sin, including past, present, and future sins. The second part of justification is that God must declare us not to be merely natural in His sight but actually to be righteous in His sight. In fact, He must declare us to have the merits of perfect righteousness before Him.” (Grudem 724-25)

When considering the implications of legal declarations, we have to acknowledge that there is a substantial body of judicial law which was given to us by God. I’m speaking, of course, not only of the Ten Commandments, which comprises the moral law, but also the civil, dietary, and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. This ‘weighty’ and seemingly inflexible array of commandments can surely be viewed as a burdensome yoke of oppression for the common man. In Old and even New Testament times, man sometimes considered his salvation as being inexorably linked to his ‘keeping’ of the law. To the degree that he kept the Lord’s rules and regulations, that was the degree to which he calculated his chances of salvation. Yet the keeping of the law TO EARN SALVATION was and is an exercise in futility. In Galatians 3:10-11, Paul addresses this contentious issue:

“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is
written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do every-
thing written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly, no one is justified
before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by

The law was powerless to justify anyone righteous in the eyes of God for the simple reason that no mortal human was able to keep the law.

“There is no one righteous, not even one…no one who seeks God.
There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-11)

“I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he
is obligated to obey the whole law.” (Galatians 5:3)

One might sweat out an entire lifetime trying to keep only one of God’s laws, much less all of them. No, keeping the law was not the way to justification.

The law has four main purposes:

1. It shows us the moral character of God
2. It serves as a tutor to lead us to Christ, by defining what sin is.
3. It is a guide for Christian living.
4. Knowing the law can keep us from suffering the adverse consequences of sin.


It seems clear from scripture that there are only two possible sources of obtaining justification: from one’s own self, or from an outside source (God). Mark chapter 10 gives us an illustration of one man’s attempt to justify himself before God (before Jesus). A rich young man is asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. In verse 18 Jesus responded by stating, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Jesus goes on to list a number of the Ten Commandments as the standard by which the young man must measure his actions. The young man remarked, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” To which Jesus then said, “One thing you lack. God, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The story ends when the young man’s face fell and he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

There are a number of lessons in this story. One of these was that the young man was trying to justify himself righteous before Jesus by indicating he was “keeping the law,” when in reality he was in violation of the commandment not to make for one’s self any idols. Money was the young man’s idol, and thus he had already broken the law.

Perhaps some other young man might have listened to Jesus reciting the commandments and come to realize that not only could he not keep them in the future, but he had already broken many of them in the past. The conversation might well have then taken a different turn. He might have said something like, “Teacher, I confess that I have not kept the whole law, and I guess I need to be truthful and tell you that I don’t think I can keep it in the future either. What then can I do?” I’m fairly sure that Jesus would have told him to believe in Him, and then he will receive eternal life. One other note: later in the story of the rich young man Jesus noted that, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responded by saying, “With man this is impossible, but not with God. With God, all things are possible” (v. 27). The crux of the message was that it is impossible for a rich man to justify himself, especially when he is engaging in idol worship. Though man might possess great wealth, and achieve tremendous influence in the worldly system, he still has two major problems: one, he still is unable to keep the law; and two, he is completely helpless in justifying himself before God – he needs divine assistance. Only God can justify a person righteous. And it’s not by the works of man that this is achieved, but by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Two other examples of men seeking to justify themselves before God can be found in Luke 16:15 and 18:11. It is from these types of Biblical references that the Bible paints an exceedingly clear picture that man, of himself, has no means of self-justification. Only God is able to perform that work.

PAUL AND JAMES – Are they in agreement with each other?

Much has been said over the years about salvation, justification, and works, and their relationship to each other. I think it is best to look at this from a chronological perspective, starting with the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this
not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that
no one can boast.”

Paul makes the following points:

1. You are saved by (God’s) grace through faith (in Jesus Christ).
2. This salvation did not originate from yourselves.
3. It is the gift of God (therefore it cannot be earned).
4. This salvation is not by any type of works that a man can perform.

Back in Romans chapter 4, Paul gave an illustration from Genesis 15:6 concerning Abraham’s justification:

“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something
to boast about – but not before God. What does the scripture
say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as
righteousness.” (Romans 4:2-3)

Now, going forward to James chapter 2 we read:

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but
has no deeds (works)? Can such faith save him? Faith, by
itself, if it is not accompanied by action (works – KJV), is dead.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds
is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous
for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You
see, a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

James is clearly referring to Genesis chapter 22 (Paul referenced Genesis 15 – seven chapters earlier) as the point where Abraham was justified righteous. What we see here is an illustration that James uses to answer those people who are claiming to have saving faith but no works. Specifically, he states; “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (what good is that man’s faith?)” In effect, James is saying, “You claim to have faith? You claim that God has saved you, put His Holy Spirit in you, and sealed you for redemption? You claim all these things and yet you let the poor go without food or clothes? What kind of a faith is that? I, James, will tell you quite frankly that if you possess the kind of saving faith that results in regeneration and changes a person’s life, the Holy Spirit will do a work in you and cause you to follow the Lord’s decrees (Ezekiel 36:27) and feed and clothe the poor.”

Well, what then does Paul state about works as proof that a person’s life is changed? Perhaps not surprisingly, he agrees with James:

“I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove
their repentance by their deeds (works).” (Acts 26:20)

So why did Paul state in Ephesians that a person is saved by grace through faith, and not by works? And why did he refer to Genesis 15:6 as the point of Abraham’s justification and not Genesis 22?

Initial saving faith is the precursor to works. Abraham was not saved (justified righteous) by performing works, he was performing works od A Godly nature because he first was saved and regenerated by faith. Works of a Godly nature are the result of our regeneration and salvation, not the cause of it. Faith by grace is the antecedent of works. It chronologically occurs first. Once the Holy Spirit indwells a believer at the point of salvation, He starts the process of Progressive Sanctification, and one of the effects of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-7) is that of causing, or compelling a person, by a change of heart and mind and with the believer’s cooperation, to perform works of a Godly nature. James’ argument addresses that time period of a person’s life, following true salvation and regeneration, when good works are supposed to be in evidence. He is saying, “Now that you claim to be saved, we should be seeing some good works out of you. However, if these good works are not apparent, then your initial faith was probably not genuine, and you were never, either in the eyes of God, nor in the eyes of man, justified righteous.”

Another way to illustrate this is to consider the thief on the cross next to Jesus – the one who stated, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Then Jesus responded by saying, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). It was at this particular moment that the repentant thief received his salvation, and was justified righteous in the eyes of God. This particular moment would also coincide with Genesis 15:6, when Abraham believed God and it was credited (imputed to his account) as righteousness, and would also coincide with what Paul stated in Ephesians 2:8-9. Note that there is no evidence that the thief had performed any good works in his life. To the contrary, his works were more of a criminal nature than a Godly nature. That was the very reason he was being crucified. Even as he initially hung from his cross, he heaped insults on the Lord (Mark 15:32). But then the sky darkened, his pain and suffering magnified, and the words Jesus spoke on the cross hit their appointed target, and the thief had a change of heart and believed on the Lord. At that point, the thief received his salvation and justification.

Now, if by some means the thief could have come down from the cross, prior to death, and continued on with his life, then eventually his saving faith would have produced good works (corresponding to Abraham in Genesis 22 and James chapter 2). There is a progression whereby salvation leads to good works. In the eyes of God, Abraham was genuinely justified righteous in Genesis 15:6. Because his faith was genuine, it produced his works in Genesis 22, whereby he was seen as being justified righteous in the eyes of men. James and Paul, though they approach the issue of justification from two different points in time and two different perspectives (the perspective of God and the perspective of man), nevertheless are in total agreement with each other.

Recommended reading:

The Foundations of Christian Doctrine, by Kevin J. Conner

Prayer of Salvation

God bless America!

– The Righter Report

December 11, 2011 - Posted by | Theology

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