“We have now been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9).
“[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
“We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
Being justified before God and being forgiven by God are not identical. To be justified in a courtroom is not the same as being forgiven. Being forgiven implies that I am guilty and my crime is not counted. Being justified implies that I have been tried and found innocent. My claim is just. I am vindicated. The judge says, “Not guilty.”
Justifying is a legal act. It means declaring someone to be just. It is a verdict. The verdict of justification does not make a person just. It declares a person just. It is based on someone actually being just. We can see this most clearly when the Bible tells us that, in response to Jesus’ teaching, the people “justified” God (Luke 7:29). This does not mean they made God just (since he already was). It means they declared God to be just. The moral change we undergo when we trust Christ is not justification. The Bible usually calls that sanctification—the process of becoming good. Justification is not that process. It is not a process at all. It is a declaration that happens in a moment. A verdict: Just! Righteous!
“Justification is not that process. It is not a process at all. It is a declaration that happens in a moment. A verdict: Just! Righteous!”
The ordinary way to be justified in a human court is to keep the law. In that case the jury and the judge simply declare what is true of you: You kept the law. They justify you. But in the courtroom of God, we have not kept the law. Therefore, justification, on ordinary terms, is hopeless. The Bible even says, “He who jus- tifies the wicked [is] an abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 17:15). And yet, amazingly, because of Christ, it also says God “justifies the ungodly” who trust in his grace (Romans 4:5). God does what looks abominable.
Why is it not abominable? Or, as the Bible puts it, how can God “be just and the justifier of the one who [simply!] has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26)? It is not abominable for God to justify the ungodly who trust him, for two reasons. One is that Christ shed his blood to cancel the guilt of our crime. So it says, “We have now been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). But that is only the removal of guilt. That does not declare us righteous. Canceling our failures to keep the law is not the same as declaring us to be a law-keeper. When a teacher cancels from the record an exam that got an F, it’s not the same as declaring it an A. If the bank were to forgive me the debts on my account, that would not be the same as declaring me rich. So also, canceling our sins is not the same as declaring us righteous. The cancellation must happen. That is essential to justification. But there is more. There is another reason why it is not abominable for God to justify the ungodly by faith. For that we turn to the next chapter.
*This is taken from John Piper’s book “The Passion of Jesus Christ,” which was later released under the name “50 Reasons Jesus Came to Die.”