A Primer on Justification: Part 4

Devotionals > A Primer on Justification: Part 4

A Primer on Justification: Part 4

September 26, 2016


This article is the fourth in a ten-part series by Dr. Ryken that we will gradually make available in the coming weeks. Find the other articles: Part 1: The Need For JustificationPart 2: The Centrality of Justification, Part 3: The Meaning of Justification.   The Source of Justification If righteousness is necessary for justification, where does it come from? As we have seen, our problem is that we have no righteousness of our own. So what is the source of justifying righteousness? The source of our justification is God’s free grace. The apostle Paul says it very simply: We “are justified freely by his grace” (Rom. 3:24). The Gospel Coalition gives a more expansive answer:

“Inasmuch as Christ was given by the Father for us, and his obedience and punishment were accepted in place of our own, freely and not for anything in us, this justification is solely of free grace, in order that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”

To say that we are justified by grace is to say that justification is far more than we deserve. It is an act of God’s unmerited favor. As Thomas Cranmer wrote in his Homily on Salvation, “no man can, by 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  The message of the gospel is that God offers this righteousness to sinners as a gift: “It is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33). This brings us to a disputed point in New Testament interpretation. The gift of God’s justifying righteousness is mentioned twice in Romans 3, both in verse 21 (“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify”) and in verse 22 (“This righteousness from God”). Technically speaking, however, these verses do not speak of a “righteousness from God,” as the New International Version has it, but of the “righteousness of God.” There is more than one way to interpret this phrase. Perhaps the word “of” in the phrase “righteousness of God” is what grammarians call a possessive genitive. An example is the phrase “house of David,” where David is the one to whom the house belongs. So perhaps the “righteousness of God” is simply the righteousness God possesses, which belongs to him and which he displays in salvation. We encounter this idea in Psalm 98:2, among other places: “The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” There is another possibility, however. The words “of God” may explain where the righteousness comes from—what grammarians would call a genitive of origin. An example is the phrase “man of Galilee,” where the man in question comes from Galilee. If the “righteousness of God” contains a genitive of origin, then God is the origin of the righteousness. Obviously, this is the interpretation that the New International Version favors when it speaks of “a righteousness from God.” On this reading, God is the source of the righteousness that he bestows to sinners. Which interpretation is correct? Does the righteousness belong to God or does it come from God as a gift?  Certainly both statements are true. Righteousness belongs to God as one of his essential attributes. Indeed, the dramatic conclusion of Paul’s argument in Romans 3 is that even when he justifies sinners, of all people, God still preserves his righteousness! In justification, God “demonstrates his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Yet the righteousness of God is also “that righteousness which His righteousness requires Him to require,”2  and which he graciously offers as a gift to everyone who believes. There is righteousness for us from God, therefore—righteousness that God not only owns and demonstrates, but also bestows. The issue at stake in justification is not simply whether God is righteous, but whether we can be found righteous. Paul seemed to cast doubt on this in verse 20, where he reached the alarming conclusion that “no one can be declared righteous in his sight.” Now in verse 21 he announces the good news that we can be declared righteous before God, not because of our own righteousness, but because of righteousness that comes from God. This interpretation is confirmed by verse 22, which makes it clear that the righteousness of God “comes to all who believe.” It is further confirmed by Romans 5:17, which speaks of “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness.” Righteousness is not merely an attribute that God displays, but also a gift that he dispenses. To use a memorable phrase from John Stott, justification is God’s “righteous way of righteoussing the unrighteous.”3 If we are declared righteous on the basis of a gift, then the source of our justification must be the grace of God. For that is what grace is: God’s free gift for utterly undeserving sinners. This is the gift-righteousness Paul had in mind when he testified to the Philippians that he wanted “to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil. 3:9; cf. Heb. 11:7). It is also what Martin Luther meant when he spoke of an “alien righteousness.” Since there is no righteousness in us, we can only be justified by a righteousness that comes from somewhere outside of us. This righteousness is God’s own righteousness, which he grants to us through faith in Jesus Christ.  

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  Thomas Chalmers, quoted in Donald Grey Barnhouse, The Invisible War (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1965), 116.

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

2 Dr. Philip Ryken currently serves as the president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.   ]]>


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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