Atoning Blood 6

By Philip Graham Ryken

Atonement by Justification

Redemption is not the only aspect of salvation in Romans 3, however.  There is also justification—a term for atonement that comes from a court of law.  Reformation Christianity is sometimes criticized for focusing too much on the doctrine of justification by faith.  Yet this is one of the main doctrinal themes of the New Testament, where the vocabulary of justification occurs more than two hundred times, including in this passage.  Not only are we redeemed from sin, but we are also “justified freely by his grace” (Rom. 3:23). 

The mention of grace indicates that justification is more than we deserve.  It is an act of God’s unmerited favor.  As the English Reformer Thomas Cranmer wrote in his Homily on Salvation, “no man can, b y his own deeds, be justified and made righteous before God: but every man, of necessity, is constrained to seek for another righteousness or justification, to be received at God’s own hands.”[1]  In justification this need is satisfied, for as the Scripture says, “It is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33).

Justification is a legal declaration of righteousness.  It does not make someone righteous, but proclaims that someone is righteous with respect to the law.  One way to see this is by comparing justification to another declaration that is made in a court of law, namely, the declaration of condemnation.  When a judge condemns a man, he does not make the man a criminal, but declares him to be a criminal.  So also to justify is not to make righteous, but to declare righteous. 

What is unusual in this case, however, is that the people declared righteous are actually sinners.  It is the ungodly who are justified—those who are guilty of sin and condemned to die.  So on what legal basis does God grant the gift of his righteousness?  Since justification comes from the court, it must be established in law.  It would be an outrage for a righteous God simply to overlook or to excuse sin.  If he intends to justify sinners, he must have some legitimate judicial basis for doing so.  Only in this way can he remain just while at the same time justifying sinners (Rom. 3:26).

The way God justifies sinners is on the basis of the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ: “When God justifies sinners, he is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinners after all. He is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because he himself in his Son has born the penalty of their law-breaking.”[2]  The payment of this penalty satisfies God’s justice and thus provides the legal basis for our justification. As Paul will say a little later in Romans: “We have now been justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9).

[1] Thomas Cranmer, quoted in Edmund P. Clowney, “The Biblical Doctrine of Justification by Faith,” in Right with God: Justification in the Bible and the World, ed. by D. A. Carson (London: World Evangelical Fellowship, 1992), 17-50 (p. 17).

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 190.