15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


Additional Links

in common language, signifies a vindication from any charge which affects the moral character; but in theology it is used for the acceptance of one, by God, who is, and confesses himself to be, guilty. To justify a sinner, says Mr. Bunting, in an able sermon on this important subject, is to account and consider him relatively righteous; and to deal with him as such, notwithstanding his past actual unrighteousness, by clearing, absolving, discharging, and releasing him from various penal evils, and especially from the wrath of God, and the liability to eternal death, which, by that past unrighteousness, he had deserved; and by accepting him as if just, and admitting him to the state, the privileges, and the rewards of righteousness. Hence it appears that justification, and the remission or forgiveness of sin, are substantially the same thing. These expressions relate to one and the same act of God, to one and the same privilege of his believing people. Accordingly, St. Paul clearly uses justification and forgiveness as synonymous terms, when he says, "Be it known unto you, therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses," Acts 13:38-39 . Also in the following passage: "To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin," Romans 4:5-8 . Here, the justification of the ungodly, the counting or imputation of righteousness, the forgiveness of iniquity, and the covering and non- imputation of sin, are phrases which have all, perhaps, their various shades of meaning, but which express the very same blessing under different views. But (1.) the justification of a sinner does not in the least degree alter or diminish the evil nature and desert of sin. For we know "it is God," the holy God, "that justifieth." And he can never regard sin, on any consideration, or under any circumstances, with less than perfect and infinite hatred. Sin, therefore, is not changed in its nature, so as to be made less "exceedingly sinful," or less worthy of wrath, by the pardon of the sinner. The penalty is remitted, and the obligation to suffer that penalty is dissolved; but it is still naturally due, though graciously remitted. Hence appear the propriety and duty of continuing to confess and lament even pardoned sin with a lowly and contrite heart. Though released from its penal consequences by an act of divine clemency, we should still remember that the dust of self abasement is our proper place before God, and should temper our exultation in his mercy by an humbling recollection of our natural liability to his wrath. "I will establish my covenant with thee, and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: that thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God," Ezekiel 16:62-63 .

(2.) The account which has been given of justification, if correct, sufficiently points out the error of many of the Roman Catholic divines, and of some mystic theologians, who seem to suppose that to be justified is to be, not reckoned righteous, but actually made righteous, by the infusion of a sanctifying influence, producing a positive and inherent conformity to the moral image of God. This notion confounds the two distinct though kindred blessings of justification and regeneration. The former, in its Scriptural sense, is an act of God, not in or upon man, but for him, and in his favour; an act which, abstractedly considered, to use the words of Dr. Barrow, "respects man only as its object, and translates him into another relative state. The inherent principle of righteousness is a consequent of this act of God; connected with it, but not formally of it."

(3.) The justification extends to all past sins; that is, to all guilt contracted previously to that time at which the act of justification takes place. In respect of this, it is, while it remains in force, a most full, perfect, and entire absolution from wrath. "All manner of sin" is then forgiven. The pardon which is granted is a "justification," not merely from some things, from many things, from most things, but "from all things," Acts 13:39 . God does not justify us, or pardon our innumerable offences, by degrees, but at once. As by the law of works he is cursed, who "continueth not in all things" which that law enjoined, so he who is truly absolved by the Gospel is cleared from all and every thing which before stood against him; and "there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus." Well may that Gospel which reveals and offers such a benefit be termed a "great salvation!"

(4.) Another remark, which it may not be unnecessary to make, is, that justification, however effectual to our release from past guilt, does not terminate our state of probation. It is not irreversible, any more than eternal. As he who is now justified was once condemned, so he may in future come again into condemnation, by relapsing into sin and unbelief, although at present "accepted in the Beloved." Thus Adam, before transgression, was in a state of favour: but as he had not then fulfilled, to the end of his probation, the righteousness of that law under which he was placed, his ultimate and final acceptance was not absolutely certain. His privilege, as one accepted of God, might be forfeited, and was actually forfeited, by his subsequent sin. Now, our own justification or pardon only places us, as to this point, in similar circumstances. Though ever so clearly and fully forgiven, we are yet on our trial for eternity, and should "look to ourselves, that we lose not the things which we have gained." That justification may for our sin be reversed, appears from our Lord's parable of the two debtors, in which one who had obtained the blessing of forgiveness is represented as incurring the forfeiture of it by the indulgence of an unforgiving spirit toward his fellow servant, Matthew 18:23-35 . Let us therefore "watch and pray, that we enter not into temptation."

2. The immediate results of justification are (1.) The restoration of amity and intercourse between the pardoned sinner and the pardoning God. For, "being justified by faith, we have peace with God," and, consequently, unforbidden access to him. The matter and ground of God's controversy with us being then removed by his act of gracious absolution, we become the objects of his friendship. "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness; and he was" immediately "called the friend of God," James 2:23; and so are all those who are similarly justified. This reconciliation, however, does not extend to their instant and absolute deliverance from all those evils which transgression has entailed on man. They are still liable, for a season, to affliction and pain, to temporal suffering and mortality. These are portions of the original curse from which their justification does not as yet release them. But it entitles them to such supports under all remaining trouble, and to such promises of a sanctifying influence with it, as will, if embraced, "turn the curse into a blessing." Whom the Lord loveth, he may still chasten, and in very faithfulness afflict them. But these are acts of salutary discipline, rather than of vindictive displeasure. His friendship, not his righteous hostility is the principle from which they all proceed; and the salvation, not the destruction, of the sufferer is the end to which they are all directed.

(2.) Another immediate result of justification is the adoption of the persons justified into the family of God, and their consequent right to eternal life of body and soul. God condescends to become not only their Friend, but their Father; they are the objects not merely of his amicable regard, but of his paternal tenderness. And, admitted to the relation of children, they become entitled to the children's inheritance; for, "if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together," Romans 8:17 .

(3.) With these results of justification is inseparably connected another, of the utmost value and importance; namely, the habitual indwelling of the Holy Spirit. "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith," Galatians 3:13-14 . "Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts," Galatians 4:6 . With the remission of sins, St. Peter also connects, as an immediate result, as a distinct but yet a simultaneous blessing, "the gift of the Holy Ghost,"

Acts 2:38 . And in the fifth verse of this chapter, the Holy Ghost is said to be given to those who are justified by faith. Of this indwelling the immediate effects are, (i.) Tranquillity of conscience. For he testifies and manifests to those in whom he dwells their free justification and gracious adoption. The spirit which such persons have received is "not the spirit of bondage to fear, but the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God,"

Romans 8:15-16 .

(ii.) Power over sin; a prevailing desire and ability to walk before God in holy obedience. No sooner is the Holy Spirit enthroned in the heart, than he begins to make all things new. In his genuine work, purity is always connected with consolation. Those to whom he witnesses their freedom from condemnation he also enables to "walk, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit," Romans 8:1 .

(iii.) A joyous hope of heaven. Their title results from the fact of their adoption; their power to rejoice in hope, from the Spirit's testimony of that fact. "We, through the Spirit, wait for the hope of righteousness by faith,"

and "abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost," Galatians 5:5; Romans 15:13 .

3. To have a complete view of the method by which justification and all its consequent blessings are attained, we must consider the originating, the meritorious, and the instrumental cause of justification.

(1.) The originating cause is the grace, the free, undeserved, and spontaneous love of God toward fallen man. He remembered and pitied us in our low estate; for his mercy endureth for ever. "After that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us. The grace of God bringeth salvation," Titus 2:11; Titus 3:4-5 . We are justified freely by his grace;" Romans 3:24 . But God is wise, and holy, and just, as well as merciful and gracious. And his wisdom determined, that, in order to reconcile the designs of his mercy toward sinners with the claims of his purity and justice, those designs should be accomplished only through the intervention of a divine Redeemer. We are justified "through our Lord Jesus Christ," Romans 1:5 .

(2.) Our Lord Jesus Christ is the sole meritorious cause of our justification. All he did and all he suffered in his mediatorial character may be said to have contributed to this great purpose. For what he did, in obedience to the precepts of the law, and what he suffered, in satisfaction of its penalty, taken together, constitute that mediatorial righteousness, for the sake of which the Father is ever well pleased in him. Now, in this mediatorial righteousness all who are justified have a saving interest. It is not meant that it is personally, imputed to them in its formal nature or distinct acts; for against any such imputation there lie insuperable objections both from reason and from Scripture. But the collective merit and moral effects of all which the Mediator did and suffered are so reckoned to our account when we are justified, that, for the sake of Christ and in consideration of his obedience unto death, we are released from guilt, and accepted of God.

From this statement of the meritorious cause of justification, it appears that while our pardon is, in its origin, an act of the highest grace, it is also, in its mode, an act most perfectly consistent with God's essential righteousness, and demonstrative of his inviolable justice. It proceeds not on the principle of abolishing the law or its penalty; for that would have implied that the law was unduly rigorous, either in its precepts or in its sanctions. But it rests on the ground that the law has been magnified and vindicated, and that its penalty, or sufferings, which where fully equivalent to that penalty in a moral view, when the dignity of the sufferer is considered, have been sustained by our voluntary Substitute. Thus "grace reigns through righteousness," not at the expense of righteousness. "Now, the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness; that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus,"

Romans 3:21-26 .

(3.) As to the instrumental cause of justification, the merit of the blood of Jesus does not operate necessarily so as to produce our pardon as an immediate and unavoidable effect, but through the instrumentality of faith. The faith by which we are justified is present faith, faith actually existing and exercised. We are not justified by to-morrow's faith foreseen; for that would lead to the Antinomian notion of justification from eternity, a notion which to mention is to confute. We are not justified by yesterday's faith recorded or remembered; for that would imply the opinion that justification is irreversible. The justification offered in the Scriptures is a justification upon believing, in which we are never savingly interested until we believe, and which continues in force only so long as we continue to believe. On all unbelievers the wrath of God abides. The atonement of Jesus was indeed accepted, as from him, at the time when it was offered; but it is not accepted, as for us, to our individual justification, until we individually believe, nor after we cease to believe. The OBJECT of justifying faith may be inferred from what has been before said, as to the originating and meritorious causes of justification. It has respect, in general, to all that Christ is set forth in the Gospel as doing or suffering, by the gracious appointment of the Father, in order to our redemption and pardon. But it has respect, in particular, to the atoning sacrifice of Christ, as exhibited by divine authority in the Scriptures, and as attested to be acceptable and sufficient by his resurrection from the dead, and by his mediatorial exaltation at the right hand of God.

The acts or exercises of this faith seem to be three; or rather, that faith which is required in order to our justification is a complex act of the mind, which includes three distinct but concurrent exertions of its powers. It includes, (1.) The assent of the understanding to the truth of the testimony of God in the Gospel; and especially to that part of it which concerns the design and efficacy of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin.

(2.) The consent of the will and affections to this plan of salvation; such an approbation and choice of it as imply a renunciation of every other refuge, and a steady and decided preference of this. Unbelief is called a disallowing of the foundation laid in Zion; whereas faith includes a hearty allowance of it, and a thankful acquiescence in God's revealed method of forgiveness.

(3.) From this assent of the enlightened understanding, and consent of the rectified will, to the evangelical testimony concerning Christ crucified, results the third thing, which is supposed to be implied in justifying faith; namely, actual trust in the Saviour, and personal apprehension of his merits. When, under the promised leading and influence of the Holy Ghost, the penitent sinner thus confidently relies and individually lays hold on Christ, then the work of justifying faith is complete; then, and not till then, he is immediately justified. On the whole, it may be said that the faith to which the privilege of justification is annexed, is such a belief of the Gospel, by the power of the Spirit of God, as leads us to come to Christ, to receive Christ, to trust in Christ, and to commit the keeping of our souls into his hands, in humble confidence of his ability and his willingness to save us.

The grand doctrine of the Reformation was that of justification by faith, and was therefore held by all the Lutheran and Reformed churches. The Papists assert that man's inherent righteousness is the meritorious cause of his justification: many Protestant divines have endeavoured to unite the two, and have held that men are justified by faith and good works; and others have equally departed from the opinions of the earliest reformers on the subject of justification, in representing it as resulting from the imputation of Christ's active and passive righteousness to those that believe, instead of confining the imputation to the moral consequence and effect of both. In other words, that which is reckoned to us in our justification for righteousness is our faith in Christ's merits, and that not because of any intrinsic value in faith; but only for the sake of those merits.

In a mere moral sense man's sin or righteousness is imputed to him, when he is considered as actually the doer of sinful or of righteous acts. A man's sin or righteousness is imputed to him in its legal consequence, under a government of rewards and punishments; and then to impute sin or righteousness signifies, in a legal sense, to reckon and to account it, to acquit or condemn, and forthwith to punish, or to exempt from punishment. Thus Shimei entreats David, that he would "not impute folly to him," that is, that he would not punish his folly. In this sense, too, David speaks of the blessedness of the man whose "transgression is forgiven,"

and to whom the Lord "imputeth not sin," that is, whom he forgives, so that the legal consequence of his sin shall not fall upon him. This non- imputation of sin, to a sinner, is expressly called the "imputation of righteousness, without works;" the imputation of righteousness is, then, the non-punishment, or the pardon of sin; and if this passage be read in its connection, it will also be seen, that by "imputing" faith for righteousness, the Apostle means precisely the same thing: "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness; even as David also describeth the man to whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed is the man whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not sin." This quotation form David would have been nothing to the Apostle's purpose, unless he had understood the forgiveness of sins, and the imputation of righteousness, and the non- imputation of sin, to signify the same thing as "counting faith for righteousness," with only this difference, that the introduction of the term "faith" marks the manner in which the forgiveness of sin is obtained. To have faith imputed for righteousness, is nothing more than to be justified by faith, which is also called by St. Paul, "being made righteous," that is, being placed by an act of free forgiveness, through faith in Christ, in the condition of righteous men, in this respect, that the penalty of the law does not lie against them, and that they are the acknowledged objects of the divine favour. See FAITH .

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Justification'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry