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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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A forensic term, and signifies the declaring or the pronouncing a person righteous according to law. It stands opposed to condemnation; and this is the idea of the word whenever it is used in an evangelical sense, Romans 5:18 . Deuteronomy 25:1 . Proverbs 17:15 . Matthew 12:37 . It does not signify to make men holy, but the holding and declaring them so. It is defined by the assembly thus: "An act of God's free grace, in which he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." The doctrine of justification, says Mr. Booth, makes a very distinguished figure in that religion which is from above, and is a capital article of that faith which was once delivered to the saints. Far from being a merely speculative point, it spreads its influence through the whole body of divinity, runs through all Christian experience, and operates in every part of practical godliness. Such is its grand importance, that a mistake about it has a malignant efficacy, and is attended with a long train of dangerous consequences.

Nor can this appear strange, when it is considered, that the doctrine of justification is no other than the way of a sinner's acceptance with God. Being of such peculiar moment, it is inseparably connected with many other evangelical truths, the harmony and beauty of which we cannot behold while this is misunderstood. It is, if any thing may be so called, an essential article, and certainly requires our most serious consideration. Justification, in a theological sense, is either legal or evangelical. If any person could be found that had never broken the divine law, he might be justified by it in a manner strictly legal. But in this way none of the human race can be justified, or stand acquitted before God. For all have sinned; there is none righteous; no, not one, Romans 3:1-31 : As sinners, they are under the sentence of death by his righteous law, and excluded from all hope and mercy. That justification, therefore, about which the Scriptures principally treat, and which reaches the case of a sinner, is not by a personal, but an imputed righteousness; a righteousness without the law, Romans 3:21 . provided by grace, and revealed in the Gospel; for which reason, that obedience by which a sinner is justified, and his justification itself are called evangelical.

In this affair there is the most wonderful display of divine justice and boundless grace. Of divine justice, if we regard the meritorious cause and ground on which the Justifier proceeds in absolving the condemned sinner, and in pronouncing him righteous. Of boundless grace, if we consider the state and character of those persons to whom the blessing is granted. Justification may be farther distinguished as being either at the bar of God, and in the court of conscience; or in the sight of the world, and before our fellow-creatures. The former is by mere grace through faith; and the latter is by works. To justify is evidently a divine prerogative. It is God that justifieth, Rom 7: 33. That sovereign Being, against whom we have so greatly offended, whose law we have broken by ten thousand acts of rebellion against him, has, in the way of his own appointment, the sole right of acquitting the guilty, and of pronouncing them righteous. He appoints the way, provides the means, and imputes the righteousness; and all in perfect agreement with the demands of his offended law, and the rights of his violated justice.

But although this act is in some places of the infallible word more particularly appropriated personally to the Father, yet it is manifest that all the Three Persons are concerned in this grand affair, and each performs a distinct part in this particular, as also in the whole economy of salvation. The eternal Father is represented as appointing the way, and as giving his own Son to perform the conditions of our acceptance before him, Romans 8:32 : the divine Son as engaged to sustain the curse, and make the atonement; to fulfil the terms, and provide the righteousness by which we are justified, Titus 2:14 : and the Holy Spirit as revealing to sinners the perfection, suitableness, and freeness of the Saviour's work, enabling them to receive it as exhibited in the Gospel of sovereign grace; and testifying to their consciences complete justification by it in the court of heaven, John 16:8; John 16:14 . As to the objects of justification, the Scripture says, they are sinners, and ungodly. For thus runs the divine declaration: To him that worketh is the reward of justification, and of eternal life as connected with it; not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth

whom? the righteous? the holy? the eminently pious? nay, verily, but the ungodly; his faith, or that in which he believes, is counted unto him for righteousness, Romans 4:4-5 . Galatians 2:17 . Here, then, we learn, that the subjects of justification, considered in themselves, are not only destitute of a perfect righteousness, but have performed no good works at all. They are denominated and considered as the ungodly, when the blessing is bestowed upon them. Not that we are to understand that such remain ungodly. "All, " says Dr. Owen, "that are justified, were before ungodly: but al that are justified, are, at the same instant, made godly." That the mere sinner, however, is the subject of justification, appears from hence. The Spirit of God, speaking in the Scripture, repeatedly declares that we are justified by grace. But grace stands in direct opposition to works. Whoever, therefore, is justified by grace, is considered as absolutely unworthy in that very instant when the blessing is vouchsafed to him, Romans 3:1-31 . The person, therefore, that is justified, is accepted without any cause in himself.

Hence it appears, that if we regard the persons who are justified, and their state prior to the enjoyment of the immensely glorious privilege, divine grace appears, and reigns in all its glory. As to the way and manner in which sinners are justined, it may be observed that the Divine Being can acquit none without a complete righteousness. Justification, as before observed, is evidently a forensic term, and the thing intended by it a judicial act. So that, were a person to be justified without a righteousness, the judgment would not be according to truth; it would be a false and unrighteous sentence. That righteousness by which we are justified must be equal to the demands of that law according to which the Sovereign Judge proceeds in our justification. Many persons talk of conditions of justification (see article CONDITION;) but the only condition is that of perfect righteousness: this the law requires, nor does the Gospel substitute another. But where shall we find, or how shall we obtain a justifying righteousness? Shall we flee to the law for relief? Shall we apply with diligence and zeal to the performance of duty, in order to attain the desired end? The apostle positively affirms, that there is no acceptance with God by the works of the law; and the reasons are evident. Our righteousness is imperfect, and consequently cannot justify. If justification were by the works of men, it could not be by grace: it would not be a righteousness without works.

There would be no need of the righteousness of Christ; and, lastly, if justification were by the law, then boasting would be encouraged; whereas God's design, in the whole scheme of salvation, is to exclude it, Romans 3:27 . Ephesians 2:8-9 . Nor is faith itself our righteousness, or that for the sake of which we are justified: for, though believers are said to be justified by faith, yet not for faith: faith can only be considered as the instrument, and not the cause. That faith is not our righteousness, is evident from the following considerations: No man's faith is perfect; and, if it were, it would not be equal to the demands of the divine law. It could not, therefore, without an error in judgment, be accounted a complete righteousness. But the judgment of God, as before proved, is according to truth, and according to the rights of his law. That obedience by which a sinner is justified is called the righteousness of faith, righteousness by faith, and is represented as revealed to faith; consequently it cannot be faith itself. Faith, in the business of justification, stands opposed to all works; to him that worketh not, but believeth.

Now, if it were our justifying righteousness, to consider it in such a light would be highly improper. For in such a connection it falls under the consideration of a work; a condition, on the performance of which our acceptance with God is manifestly suspended. If faith itself be that on account of which we are accepted, then some believers are justified by a more, and some by a less perfect righteousness, in exact proportion to the strength or weakness of their faith. That which is the end of the law is our righteousness, which certainly is not faith, but the obedience of our exalted substitute, Romans 10:4 . Were faith itself our justifying righteousness, we might depend upon it before God, and rejoice in it. So that according to this hypothesis, not Christ, but faith, is the capital thing; the object to which we must look, which is absurd. When the apostle says, "faith was imputed to him for righteousness, " his main design was to prove that the eternal Sovereign justifies freely, without any cause in the creature. Nor is man's obedience to the Gospel as to a new and milder law the matter of his justification before God.

It was a notion that some years ago obtained, that a relaxation of the law, and the severities of it, has been obtained by Christ; and a new law, a remedial law, a law of milder terms, has been introduced by him, which is the Gospel; the terms of which are faith, repentance, and obedience; and though these are imperfect, yet, being sincere, they are accepted of by God in the room of a perfect righteousness. But every part of this scheme is wrong, for the law is not relaxed, nor any of its severities abated; there is no alteration made in it, either with respect to its precepts or penalty: besides, the scheme is absurd, for it supposes that the law which a man is now under requires only an imperfect obedience: but an imperfect righteousness cannot answer its demands; for every law requires perfect obedience to its own precepts and prohibitions. Nor is a profession of religion, nor sincerity, nor good works, at all the ground of our acceptance with God, for all our righteousness is imperfect, and must therefore be entirely excluded. By grace, saith the apostle, ye are saved, not of works, lest any man should boast, Ephesians 2:8-9 . Besides, the works of sanctification and justification are two distinct things: the one is a work of grace within men; the other an act of grace for or towards men: the one is imperfect, the other complete; the one carried on gradually, the other done at once.

See SANCTIFICATION. If, then, we cannot possibly be justified by any of our own performances, nor by faith itself, nor even by the graces of the Holy Spirit, where then shall we find a righteousness by which we can be justified? The Scripture furnishes us with an answer

"By Jesus Christ all that believe are justified from all things from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses, " Acts 13:38-39 . "He was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification, " Romans 4:25 . "Being justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him, " Romans 5:9 . The spotless obedience, therefore, the bitter sufferings, and the accursed death of our heavenly Surety, constitute that very righteousness by which sinners are justified before God. That this righteousness is imputed to us, and that we are not justified by a personal righteousness, appears from the Scripture with superior evidence. "By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous, " Rom 19. "He hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him, " 2 Corinthians 5:21 . "And he found in him, not having mine own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ; the righteousness which is of God by faith, " Philippians 3:8 .

See also Jeremiah 23:6 . Daniel 9:24 . the whole of the 2nd chapter of Galatians.

See articles RECONCILLIATION, RIGHTEOUSNESS. As to the properties of justification:

1. It is an act of God's free grace, without any merit whatever in the creature, Romans 3:24 .

2. It is an act of justice as well as grace: the law being perfectly fulfilled in Christ, and divine justice satisfied, Romans 3:26 . Psalms 85:10 .

3. It is an individual and instantaneous act done at once, admitting of no degrees, John 19:30 .

4. It is irreversible, and an unalterable act, Malachi 3:6 . As to the time of justification, divines are not agreed. Some have distinguished it into decretive, virtual, and actual

1. Decretive, is God's eternal purpose to justify sinners in time by Jesus Christ.

2. Virtual justification has a reference to the satisfaction made by Christ.

3. Actual, is, when we are enabled to believe in Christ, and by faith are united to him. Others say it is eternal, because his purpose respecting it was from everlasting: and that, as the Almighty viewed his people in Christ, they were, of consequence, justified in his sight. But it appears to me, that the principle on which the advocates for this doctrine have proceeded is wrong. They have confounded the design with the execution; for if this distinction be not kept up, the utmost perplexity will follow the consideration of every subject which relates to the decrees of God; nor shall we be able to form any clear ideas of his moral government whatever.

To say, as one does, that the eternal will of God to justify men is the justification of them, is not to the purpose; for, upon the same ground, we might as well say that the eternal will of God to convert and glorify his people is the real conversion and glorification of them. That it was eternally determined that there should be a people who should believe in Christ, and that his righteousness should be imputed to them, is not to be disputed; but to say that these things were really done from eternity (which we must say if we believe eternal justification, ) this would be absurd. It is more consistent to believe, that God more consistent to believe, that God from eternity laid the plan of justification; that this plan was executed by the life and death of Christ; and that the blessing is only manifested, received, and enjoyed, when we are regenerated; so that no man can say or has any reason to conclude, he is justified, until he believes in Christ, Romans 5:1 . The effects or blessings of justification, are,

1. An entire freedom from all penal evils in this life, and that which is to come, 1 Corinthians 3:22 .

2. Peace with God, Romans 5:1 .

3. Access to God through Christ, Ephesians 3:12 .

4. Acceptance with God, Ephesians 5:27 .

5. Holy confidence and security under all the difficulties and troubles of the present state, 2 Timothy 1:12 .

6. Finally, eternal salvation, Romans 8:30 . Romans 5:18 . Thus we have given as comprehensive a view of the doctrine of justification as the nature of this work will admit; a doctrine which is founded upon the sacred Scriptures; and which, so far from leading to licentiousness, as some suppose, is of all others the most replete with motives to love, dependence, and obedience, Romans 6:1-2 . A doctrine which the primitive Christians held as constituting the very essence of their system; which our reformers considered as the most important point; which our venerable martyrs gloried in, and sealed with their blood; and which, as the church of England observes, is a "very wholesome doctrine, and full of comfort."

See Dr. Owen on Justification; Rawlins on Justification; Edwards's Sermon on ditto; Lime Street Aspasio, and Eleven Letters; Witherspoon's Connexion between Justification and Holiness; Gill and Ridgley's Div. but especially Booth's Reign of Grace, to which I am indebted for great part of the above article.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Justification'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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