Occasionally, when we enter into a new culture, we still use terms that we know the background and use of, but nobody else does! Because of this, we sometimes need to explain what we’re talking about and define our terms – even with words we use all the time. This may feel strange to us, but it’s necessary in order to get across the message of Christianity. One such word is “justification”.
Justification is one of those terms in Christian circles that sounds impressive and pastors use it all the time. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as it goes in the ears of the congregation. Unbelievers have an even harder time! This is something we need to change. So, here and now, let’s define this important biblical word. While we’re at it, we’re also going to look at where we see it in Scripture, and how it begins something called “the redemption timeline”.
According to Oxford Dictionary, justification means “the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.” That’s a good start. But if we keep reading, we also see the theological definition as well: “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.” That’s what this word means. With terms like “right”, “reasonable”, and “declaring”, it shouldn’t as a shock that the word “justification” actually has a legal background to it. In law, justification is the idea that someone who should not be considered righteous is declared righteous through the actions of another. What a beautiful picture of salvation this is!
Where do we see examples of this in Scripture? One book, in particular, focuses on the term justification: the book of Romans. According to the ESV, the book of Romans is the only one in the entire Bible that uses the word we translate as “justification” – and it happens three times: 4:25, 5:16, and 5:18.
Romans 4:25 shows us that justification was attained for us by the resurrection of Christ. Romans 5:16 shows us that justification was attained by the grace of Christ, even though His creation, humans, have sinned so greatly against Him. Finally, Romans 5:18 shows us that justification is the result of Christ’s one act of righteousness of His death and resurrection, which then leads to eternal life for all of those who trust and believe in Christ as Savior.
Are these three places it, then? Not exactly. While the word itself is only in these three places, the verb form of justification “justify” occurs six times in Scripture (ESV). Even better, the past tense form “justified” appears twenty-nine times. Similar Hebrew words are even used a handful of times in the Old Testament. The point is simple: justification is a theme all throughout the Bible.
A perfect Old Testament example can be seen in Genesis 15. Here, God is establishing what is known as the Abrahamic covenant with Abram (or Abraham). At this point, Abram and his wife Sarai are old – far beyond the age of having children (Gen 15:2-3). But here, the Lord promises that not only will Abram have a son, but his offspring shall be as the number of the stars (15:5). The next verse is the one that we are most interested in when it pertains to justification. “And he (Abram) believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness” (15:6). Not only do we see righteousness here, but we also see the verb “counted.” This is the same idea as “declared or making righteous,” the definition of justification. With Abram living centuries upon centuries before Jesus came to earth, Abram is justified because he trusted in the Lord and that He will fulfill His promises. What a joyful picture justification paints for us!
Finally, justification is not only important to know about for its own sake, but it also maps out “the redemption timeline”. What’s that? This timeline begins with justification, which shows the beautiful act of salvation. After that, comes “sanctification”, which lasts until the end of your life. This is basically just growing & striving to be more like Jesus. The apostle Paul puts it well when he sees sanctification as working out your salvation, NOT working for your salvation (Phil. 2:12). The timeline ends with the wonderful concept of glorification. This is the end goal for every believer, whether they die on this earth or Christ comes back, we spend eternity with Jesus in His presence. Not only that, but we will have resurrection bodies that are perfect since there will be no more death, sin, or sickness.
In order to get to the glorious end of glorification though, one must be justified first, which is only attainable through the death and resurrection of Jesus and in trusting in Him as Savior.
Justification is certainly one of those words that preachers tend to use, but not everyone in their congregation may actually know. Justification is the process of declaring someone righteous in the sight of God. It is the idea that one who is not righteous is being declared as righteous by the only person ever to be truly righteous, Jesus Christ. Even though this concept is mainly found in the Old Testament, there are a few instances found in the Old Testament, culminating with the great example seen in Genesis 15. Finally, justification is the beginning of the redemption timeline, followed by sanctification and culmination with glorification. Hopefully, this breakdown makes justification easier to understand and teach to those within the church and to those who are interested in learning more about Jesus.