A Primer on Justification: Part 2
September 12, 2016
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Having described our predicament in all its miserable detail, the apostle Paul announces that a legal remedy has been made available: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known” (Rom. 3:21). The words “but now” mark a major transition in Paul’s argument. More than that, they introduce the great turning point in the history of salvation. Up to this point we stand condemned. God’s perfect law tells us that we cannot be declared righteous at the bar of God’s justice. But now a righteousness from God has been revealed. God has provided the way for us to be declared righteous. Or, to put it in the biblical way, he has provided a way for us to be justified.
There is more to salvation than justification by faith. Yet without exaggerating its importance, it must be said that this doctrine holds a place near the center of the gospel. This is evident from the fact that justification is one of the central themes of Scripture, especially the New Testament, where various forms of the word “justify” (dikiaoo) appear more than two hundred times.1 The prevalence of this vocabulary serves as an index to the importance of justification in biblical theology.
The centrality of justification has been recognized by many theologians in the history of the Christian church. John Calvin called it “the main hinge on which salvation turns.”2 The English Reformer Thomas Cranmer described it as “the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion.”3 Perhaps most famously of all, Martin Luther called justification “the chief article of Christian doctrine,” so that “when justification has fallen, everything has fallen.”4 Whether we think of justification as the hinge, the foundation, or the standing-and-falling article of salvation, there is no hope of salvation without it. This is the doctrine, said Luther on another occasion, that “begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”5
Justification is central to the Christian gospel because it answers the fundamental question: How can a sinful human being be righteous before a holy God? The answer lies in the biblical teaching about justification, which The Gospel Coalition defines as follows:
We believe that Christ, by his obedience and death, fully discharged the debt of all those who are justified. By his sacrifice, he bore in our stead the punishment due us for our sins, making a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice on our behalf. By his perfect obedience he satisfied the just demands of God on our behalf, since by faith alone that perfect obedience is credited to all who trust in Christ alone for their acceptance with God.
1 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd edn. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 251.
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, 20-21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), III.xi.1.
3 Thomas Cranmer, “Sermon on Salvation” in First Book of Homilies (1547; repr. London: SPCK, 1914), 25, 26.
4 Martin Luther, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, ed. by Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 705, 715.
5 Martin Luther, What Luther Says, 704.
Dr. Philip Ryken currently serves as the president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. This article is part two in a ten-part series by Dr. Ryken that we will gradually make available in the coming weeks. Part 1 can be found here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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