Justification: Precisely Defined

Adapted from two messages preached by Michael L. Gowens, September 14, 2003 at Lexington Primitive Baptist Church, Lexington, Kentucky. Please bear in mind that the following sermonic material has been edited only minimally.

“Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.” Romans 8:33

For many modern people, big words like justification are not a regular part of their vocabulary. But justification is a Bible word, and a fundamental and vital doctrine to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, effort to obtain a precise, mental grasp of this concept is important. 

“Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?”  That’s an important question. Who can accuse or levy a charge against any of God’s chosen people? The answer to that rhetorical question is “no one” for this reason—“it is God that justifieth.”

What does that mean? Well, the word “justify” literally means to declare righteous. According to the 30th verse of this same chapter, justification is listed as one of the essential and necessary links in the chain of eternal salvation: “For whom he did foreknow, them he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his son that he might be the first born among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate them he also called, and whom he called them he also justified, and whom he justified them he also glorified.”

There are five key terms in these two verses: foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification. Someone has said that these two verses describe “the golden chain of salvation”. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then this chain is invincible. There are no weak links in the chain of eternal salvation because each of these five things depends upon God. If man’s cooperation, man’s repentance, man’s faith, man’s ability to hold out faithful until the end, man’s baptism, or man’s good works was included as a necessary link in the chain of salvation, the chain would be no stronger than man’s ability to do his part. I’m glad to tell you that our eternal salvation depends solely on God, not upon our performance, our effort, or our worthiness, for the passage says, “for whom he did foreknow, them hedid also predestinate, moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified, and whom hejustified, them he also glorified”. So, from start to finish, eternal salvation is a work of God’s sovereign and free grace. He gets all the glory, because he planned a perfect work, he performed that work at the cross, and he will finally consummate it so that every last one that he intended to save will be with him for all eternity. 

Now notice in that sublime passage that justification is one of the covenant blessings of God’s grace and a necessary link in the chain of eternal salvation. All who were loved by the Father in the timelessness of eternity past will be justified. Yes…but how?

Job struggled with this difficult question of justification. Let’s go back to Job chapter 9 and listen to the second verse. You will remember Job’s story. Job was a man whose life was turned upside down in just a matter of maybe hours or days at most. Here is a man who had everything going for him. He was very healthy and wealthy and wise, but in just a matter of hours he lost his children, his health broke, he lost his possessions, his social status, and even his friends turned against him. What happened is that Job’s friends came to comfort him in his sorrow, but then they began to sit in judgment of him, and they proposed that the reason that Job was suffering was because he had done something bad in his life. They jumped to conclusions. Somebody once said, the only exercise most people get today is dodging issues and jumping to conclusions.

Anyway, Job was being falsely accused by his three friends, and he says in Job chapter 9, “I know it is so the truth but how can man be just with God?” Now I will suggest that Job’s enigma expresses the most important question anyone could ever ask: “I know it is so the truth but how can man be just with God?” If you’ve ever asked that question, you are asking a question that deals with the most important issue in history. How can it possibly be that a righteous God will accept sinners? How could I have a standing before God in a way that would not offend him? My beloved, the fact is you are not just and righteous and I am not just and righteous, in and of ourselves. But Job says, I know it’s true.

Now how did he know that it was true?  Well, he knew it because he could see that God allowed communion with man. He could see that God blessed men and that God looked with favor upon men. He could see that in his own life for he had been blessed and he had been dealt with favorably.  Knowing that God is such a righteous and holy God, yet that man is essentially, naturally and inherently depraved and sinful, Job says, I know it is so of a truth, but I don’t understand how it can be. That question is really the most important philosophical quest in history. How can a man be just with God? If you look forward in this chapter he says in verse 3, “If God will contend with man, man cannot answer him one of a thousand.”  Now what if God brought you to trial?  I’m painting a picture for you this morning, because this is what justification talks about, and it’s important that all of us get a grasp on this biblical truth.  What if God called you to account for certain crimes that he had charged you with? What if God brought you to trial?  Job says, how can it be that man could obtain a righteous standing and status before God?  “If God will contend with man, man could not answer him one of a thousand.” What if God said, just give me an answer for one sin?  You are the lawyer, you represent yourself, and you present to me a case that will make me say, “O.K. I can understand why you sinned there, so I will pardon it.”  He said, if God were to contend with man, man couldn’t even answer him for one sin among a thousand.

Did you know that’s true, my friends? In our minds we tend to think that we were justified in the sins that we committed.   It is the most natural thing in the world to try to rationalize our own sins. Proverbs 16:2 says: “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes.” You go to somebody and you say, “I take issue with the decision you made”, and he’ll say, “What do you mean you take issue with me? I was right and here is the reason that I was right”. Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirits.

You might justify some action or decision that you’ve made and I might justify some action or decision that I’ve made, but the ultimate test is this:  Will it pass muster with the Judge of all the earth? That’s the ultimate issue. And Job says, I know that God accepts people with favor. I can see it in the way he blesses them and I know it is the truth, but how can it be? For if God would contend with man, man could not answer him one of a thousand.

Now look later in that chapter, Job chapter 9. He says in verse 13, “If God will not withdraw his anger; the proud helpers do stoop under him.” I’ll tell you, whenever the Lord is displeased and angry with a person, then he breaks that person – even the proud person. If God does not withdraw his anger, then the proud helpers do stoop under him, “…how much less shall I answer him and choose out my words to reason with him?”  Several in our congregation have had legal experience and have tried cases in a court of law. I expect that each of these attorneys would tell you that before they proceed to try a case, they make sure that their arguments are in order. They make sure that they do their homework—here’s point #1, point #2 and point #3, and I’m going to try to prove that my client is right. And Job says, if I were called to argue my case before God, how could I answer him or how could I choose out my words to reason with him? I wonder.

My beloved, how could you? If you were brought to trial before God, what case could you present that could possibly get your name cleared? You say, well Brother Mike, I am just thankful to know that there is no such thing as being brought before God in a trial. Well my friends, you need to read a little further in the book, because this book tells us that Judgment Day is coming. It tells us that there is a Judgment Day. You say, well I won’t think about that today; I’ll think about that tomorrow. You know many people take the Scarlet O’Hara approach to life.  They don’t think about it today; they think about it tomorrow. They procrastinate; they put it off. And many people say, I just don’t want to think about Judgment Day, so I’ll just put it off. But my beloved I want to tell you, it is a reality. Judgment Day is coming. God will bring people before him to trial. So what case could you possible come up with that would get your name cleared, that would have you acquitted and exonerated when you are brought before God? Well, you say, I would just argue that I’m not a bad person. Brother Mike, I’m a pretty good person after all. In fact, compared to my neighbor, I’m a really good person. I want to say today that we can always find somebody that we are better than. But whenever we are measuring ourselves by a fellow worm of the dust, the standard of measurement is not accurate.

I’ve told the story before about my children when they were little. We would take a yardstick — they would stand against the wall — and we would make a mark on the wall indicating their respective heights. Then we would take the yardstick and measure, e.g. 2 feet 3 inches tall, 3 feet 5 inches tall, and so on. And one day I noticed that one of my kids who was about…well, yea high…maybe just a little bit between my knees and my waist, measuring just a little bit over 3 feet tall. And I said, that can’t be 3 feet. I know that’s not 3 feet, that’s just a little over 2 feet. That child cannot be 3 feet tall. Then I looked and I noticed that the yardstick had been broken off, and it wasn’t a full 36-inch yardstick. It had been broken off cleanly at about 25 or 26 inches. So no wonder this child looked taller than he was—the measuring stick was not accurate. I want to tell you that when you appear more righteous than your neighbor, the measuring stick is not accurate. The real question is not a”Are you better than this drunkard or this fornicator?”; the real question is “Do you measure up to the perfect law of God and the Lord Jesus Christ who is the embodiment of what righteousness is all about?”.

Job says, I don’t know what kind of case I could present to win the trial. “How much less shall I answer him and chose out my words to reason with him (Job 9:15), whom though I were righteous, yet would I not answer, but I would make supplication to my judge.” He says, even if I were righteous, I would not presume to try and argue with God, I would just make supplication, I would beg, I would cast myself upon the mercy of the court.

Later in this chapter he says in verse 20, “if I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me.” You know at the very moment that a person says, “I’m humble, Lord”, that person’s own mouth condemns him, doesn’t it. Because to admit how humble you are, is to exhibit self-conscious pride, albeit ever so subtly. “Man is never so proud,” says C.S. Lewis, “as when striking a posture of humility”, as when he is trying to display to others how humble he is. At the very moment that I say,  “Brethren I’m not going to speak up because I’m so humble”, then I am exhibiting a very egotistical spirit. I am really interested that you think highly of me. “Man is never so proud as when striking a posture of humility.” About the moment that I speak up to justify myself, Job says, my own mouth shall condemn me. If I say I am perfect, it shall prove even worse. We’re caught on the horns of a dilemma, don’t you see, when it comes to our legal status before God.

You say, Brother Mike what are you talking about? We are not criminals. Look at us this morning; we are all dressed up in our Sunday go-to-meetin’ clothes, our faces are washed, our hair is combed, and we are pretty good people. “I try to abide by the law”, you might say today, “and I try to pay my bills and get along with my neighbor. I think I’m a pretty good person.” My beloved, I want to tell you, that by virtue of Adam’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, every last one of us is condemned before God, because we are all Adam multiplied.

Did you know that the Bible tells us in Romans chapter 5 verse 17 that “by one’s man disobedience, many were made sinners”? Condemnation came upon all men; even so, by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. The free gift came upon all men unto justification of life by that second Adam. I’m getting ahead of myself just a little bit, but the point that I am making is that Job struggled with this question: how can a man be just with God?  Job struggled with it.

You might say, well Brother Mike, I don’t think there is any way; it’s still a mystery, an enigma. But Job’s enigma is answered for us in the New Testament. How can a man be just with God? The answer is, only through a substitutionary work and an imputed righteousness. Job’s enigma is answered for us in the gospel. The gospel has the answer. It tells us that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question. How can a man be just with God? Only if another who is righteous takes his place and suffers in his stead. And that, my beloved, is the good news of the gospel.

Now with that said, what I am going to do in this message is to summarize what the Bible teaches about this very complicated doctrine in five simple statements. Somebody said once that the secret to communication is simplifying that which is complex, and that is not always easy to do. I’m not going to stand up here today and tell you that justification is an easy doctrine. It’s pretty complicated. I mean it’s a hard word in its own right. I may have already overwhelmed some of the young folks here, and maybe some of us who are not so young were also overwhelmed by the concept. Maybe you say, preacher, what I really wanted today is to hear a sermon on sharing, caring, and being a good neighbor, and you are preaching on the doctrine of justification. I want to tell you that this is the strong meat that the Bible says belongs to them that are of full age. And my beloved, we ought to grow towards spiritual maturity to the point that we can digest more and more this kind of meat. I suggest that it is important, but at the same time, I want to try to simplify it. So, I’m not going to go into the history of ideas that distinguish between venial and mortal sins, and I am not going to draw some of the fine nuances that theologians have drawn in their systematic theologies. What I do want to do is to give you five simple statements that I believe will help us to understand this very complicated subject of justification. 

Five Simple Statements

The first statement is, Man is not righteous. The biblical doctrine of justification starts with this premise. Man is not righteous. Is that a valid biblical principle? You say, well it doesn’t matter. Yes it does, because God is righteous, and if man is ever going to have fellowship with God or a vital relationship with God it is imperative that man be as God is; it is imperative that he be brought into relationship with him, because two cannot walk together except they be agreed. There must be reconciliation. Man is not righteous, but God is. That’s the first and most basic premise of this doctrine of the Bible.

Secondly, when the Bible talks about justification it builds on this idea: Christ made his people righteous at the cross. Now I emphasize the word “made”, Christ made his people righteous at the cross.

Third, The gospel declares and reports the final verdict of divine justice regarding God’s elect. The gospel reports the final verdict that the judge of all the earth has issued for all of his elect. The gospel is a proclamation, a declaration. Now when we started the sermon this morning, we said that justification means “to declare righteous”. I suggest it does not mean to make righteous, and that is an important distinction. We’ll talk about that in just a moment. And man is not righteous, but Christ made his people righteous at the cross and the gospel now declares and reports the final verdict that God the judge of all the earth has issued regarding his elect.

The fourth basic truth is, The believer is a person who hears God’s verdict and reckons himself to be righteous in Jesus Christ. When we hear the gospel report of God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ, the believer is a person who hears it and says, “It’s true for me.” He reckons himself to be just and righteous in the sight of God. In Romans 6 verse 11: “Reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The self-reckoning that is spoken of in that verse is an assessment that we make about our own condition. Job wondered about his status before God, and Job said, “I know it’s so the truth, but how can it be that man would be just with God”, and Job wonders also, how can be just with God? I wonder, my friend, if you have ever contemplated that question. Have you ever wondered, “How can such a one as myself be just with God?” What I am doing in asking that question today is bringing this truth home on a very personal level to each one of us today. You know it’s one thing to stand out here and in a sort of detached way contemplate the philosophical question “how could man be just with God?”.  It’s another thing to ask, “How can I, myself be just with such a righteous God?”. And whenever you hear the gospel which tells you what Jesus Christ has done and you believe that gospel, I want to tell you that what you are doing is you are holding court in your own heart and conscience. We’re not talking about something that effects whether you go to heaven or not, we’re talking about your own judgment of yourself. Reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin. 

So here are our four simple statements so far. The Bible, when it talks about justification, builds on these four truths. First, man is not righteous. Second, Christ made his people righteous through the imputed righteousness of the cross. Third, the gospel reports and declares what Jesus did and tells us what verdict God has issued regarding his elect. Fourth, you and I hear that report and we believe, we hold court in our own heart and conscience, we reckon ourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.

And the fifth basic truth is that The believer gives evidence of and manifests his righteous status by a life of faith and obedience by his good works. Now I’ve give you these five basic summary statements; they are simple statements. When we talk about justification, we are talking about these five basic principles.

A Word-Picture

What I want to do is to develop those in just a moment. We are dealing with a very legal and forensic concept when we talk about justification. And I want to give you a picture to help you so that the next time you hear a preacher talk about justification, you might think about this picture and the concept will be more intelligible to you. 

When we talk about justification, the picture is of a court proceeding. It’s a legal or forensic concept, and justification has to do with the part of the trial that we call the pronouncement of the verdict. Now there are many parts to a trial, aren’t there? Think about a trial. Picture this in your mind: do you see the judge sitting up there on his bench and the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney out before him? There’s a bailiff and an alleged criminal, and there is a charge that is made and evidence that is presented. In a court proceeding you have a charge or an accusation that is made. Then the prosecution presents evidence and makes their arguments. Then the defense attempts to refute the evidence. Then a verdict is announced and a judgment is made of either guilt or innocence. Finally, the sentence is issued. Isn’t that the way a trial goes? Alright, you’ve got a charge, you’ve got the evidence presented by the prosecution to try to convict the criminal, you have the defense attorney who presents counter-evidence and tries to refute the case, and then the verdict. And what two possible verdicts can a judge give in a trial? Well, he pronounces the accused either “Guilty” or “Innocent”. Isn’t that right?

Justification has to do with the part of the court proceeding which we call the pronouncement of the verdict. Now, the next time you hear a preacher get in the pulpit and say, “I’m going to preach today on the doctrine of justification”, instead of allowing that statement to trip your mental circuit-breakers so that you say, “Oh brother, I don’t want to have to think today, preacher”, I want you to think of that picture of the courtroom.

You know, every major doctrine of the gospel is a picture -word. Adoption is a wonderful picture of an orphan being brought into the family. The Bible says that God has predestinated us unto the adoption of children. The word “election” is the picture of an outcast being chosen. I often think of experiences when I was just a little boy lining up on the playground to play dodge ball and remembering that the two best athletes in the school were choosing teams, and I’ll never forget what it felt like to hear them call my name and to know, I’ve been chosen. I’m not an outcast; I’m not a throw away; I’ve been chosen. I just didn’t want to be chosen last, but you know some little fellow had to be chosen last, didn’t he? So I guess, even if you were chosen last at least you were chosen. I want to tell you that as far as God’s choice is concerned it doesn’t matter to me whether I was the last one chosen, just as long as I know that I have that blessed hope that he has chosen me—that’s enough for me. And by the way, if he didn’t choose you, did you know there would be no hope for you? I love the words of the hymn writer that we sing: “Tis not that I did choose thee, for Lord that could not be; this old heart would still refuse thee, hadst thou not chosen me.” I want to tell you, man by nature never would have moved toward God had the Lord not taken the initiative and moved toward him and chosen him. By nature we don’t love God, seek God, desire God, or want anything to do with God. My beloved, he chose a people in Christ before the foundation of the world.

Election is a picture word – choosing the outcast. Adoption is a picture word. Sanctification is a picture word. It speaks of cleaning up that which is polluted or defiled.  Sister Karen washes dishes at the house. She takes the evening meal dishes, the breakfast meal dishes and she cleans them up. She puts them in the dishwasher. She purifies them. She sterilizes them and makes them clean and ready to use again. That’s the picture of sanctification – to cleanse something that is polluted. Every major doctrine is a picture word.

And the word justification is a picture word, also. It speaks of a court proceeding. And more precisely—because we serve a precise God—justification has to do with that part in the court proceeding in which the judge says “not guilty” – the pronouncement of the verdict. Now, the judges pronouncement doesn’t make the criminal righteous, but it declares him to be righteous. I emphasize the word declare. The point is, the verdict that a judge issues affects no personal change in the individual.

Would you think with me for just a moment? Stretch your mental muscles; exercise your gray matter and think real hard for just a moment. When a judge issues a verdict, does that change the individual who is standing before him? Here is an alleged criminal standing before the judge, and the judge says, “You’re not guilty”. Does that pronouncement do anything to that man? No, my friends, it is simply a legal pronouncement, a declaration of whether he is guilty or innocent, but it doesn’t affect any change particularly in that man. And I think this is a very important point—and one that is frequently missed.

Three Key Terms

Let me define a few terms. When we talk about the doctrine of justification, there are at least three very important, key terms. The first one is the word righteousness. If you were to be asked today to define righteousness, could you do it? Now I doubt you’ll be asked. I mean, I don’t remember the last time I went into Walmart and a clerk after asking, “Will this be all for you?”, then asked, “Can you define ‘righteousness’ for me?”. It’s not a question that people tend to ask. But it is really important for us to be able to define the term, because it is such a common word in the Bible.

I’ve been thankful to know that some of our young people are reading their Bibles on a consistent basis. You know, inevitably, if you are going to be reading your Bible, you are going to run across words like that. Are these kinds of words for preachers alone, or should every believer try to learn what they mean? Everybody should, because these key terms are basic and fundamental to the gospel message.

Do you know what righteousness means? The word righteous has to do with a right relationship with God. Let me illustrate it like this. If you have ever driven down the road, I’m sure you have seen the sign on the billboard asking, “Are you right with God?” Have you ever seen that question? Or maybe you have heard someone use the expression, “He needs to get right with God”. That’s what Job was asking, how can a man be just; how can he be right? The word just and the word right or righteous are synonyms in the Bible. The word righteousnessthen has to do with a right relationship with God; it’s a word that is concerned with someone’s legal status or how they stand in relation to the law.

Now righteousness is not the same as holiness. Righteousness and holiness are similar words, but they are not synonyms in the Bible. They are first cousins, but they are not identical twins. Holiness is a word that has to do with personal character and behavior; something inside of you, but righteousness has to do only with your legal status.

Justification or righteousness has to do with legal status. Holiness has to do with personal character, and that is a very subtle nuance. And you may say, that’s a fine line of distinction, Brother Mike, to distinguish between righteousness and holiness, but I suggest it is a biblical line of distinction. Righteousness has to do with legal status, and holiness with personal character. 

The second word that is important is imputation. The word imputation means “to charge or to credit to someone’s account”. I’m sure some of you here today have a charge account, maybe at a department store or maybe you have a charge card, and when you put fuel in your car, you charge it on this card. Every time a transaction is made either a debit is charged to your account, or you make a payment and it is credited to your account. We are dealing with your legal status. Let me give you a biblical illustration of the word imputation.

In the book of Philemon, the little one chapter book before Hebrews in the New Testament, verse 18 illustrates the concept of imputation when it says, “And if he hath wronged thee…”—now Paul is here talking about a run away slave named Onesimus—“…or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account.” Now I have heard sermons preached on those five words—put that on mine account, and applied that to what Jesus Christ did at the cross. I’ll tell you what, that is really the heart of the gospel. That is a good message, because that is exactly what Jesus did at the cross. Jesus said to God the Father, if Michael Gowens hath wronged thee (and I had), or oweth thee ought (and I did), put it all on my account.

What if my wife were to go down to Target or Walmart and say, “I want to open a charge account”. She says, “I want to charge this dress, this pair of shoes, and this item for the children.” And let’s say that I went down there whenever she opened her account and said, “Whatever charges she incurs, put that on my account – open an account for her in my name, and charge me every time she makes a purchase; put that on my account.” What I am doing is asking them to impute her charges to my account. Now I’m not talking about anything done to me as a person, I’m talking about my account status. I’m talking about something legal, something forensic.

Whenever I was a young man going to college and newly married, I worked for an accounting firm. My dad is a retired CPA as well as a Primitive Baptist preacher, and I worked on audits and did some tax returns, posting checks, figuring profit and loss statements, doing balance sheets, and so forth. I learned that there is a difference in how much money a person has on his balance sheet, and how much he has in his pocket.

I remember the first time that I made my own balance sheet. If you’ve had any bookkeeping, then you know what we’re talking about. First, you list your assets, for example, my house is worth this much money, my land is worth this much, my car is worth this much, my jewelry, my wardrobe, every thing that I own – these are my assets. And then you list your liabilities – this is how much I owe on my house. First, you say, this is how much I own and then, this is how much I owe. This is how much my car is worth – this is how much I owe. Then you subtract your liabilities from your assets and that gives you your net worth. Does that make any sense? You say, preacher I thought I was going to church today instead of Accounting 101. Well, my point is, the net worth on my balance sheet looked far different than the balance in my bank account. I looked at my bank account balance and then looked at my net worth on my balance sheet and said, I’m worth some many thousands of dollars – but I’ve got $23.16 in my bank account. Something doesn’t square here. You see, my legal status was different from the actual reality of my real life situation.

What I’m saying is that justification and righteousness have to do with your legal status before God. When God looks at you he sees you as everything that the law requires you to be. But when you look in the mirror, do you see yourself as everything that the law requires you to be? When God sees Michael Gowens he says, “He’s righteous”, but I suspect that you would agree with me today, Michael Gowens is not righteous so far as practical day-to-day living is concerned. And by the way, you are not righteous either. You so, “Oh, yes I am. I don’t go to night clubs, I don’t carouse, I don’t run around on my companion – I’m righteous preacher”. Well, did you know the Bible says that anger without a cause is murder by feeling? Though I doubt any of us here this morning have ever killed another person physically, yet I expect that each of us have killed people in our hearts, haven’t we. Have you ever done that? Have you ever killed someone in your heart by a spirit of ill will or resentment or revenge or anger or hatred? Jesus says, in the sight of God there are not only sins of the hands, but there are sins of the heart. You say, “Well, I have never committed adultery, preacher”. But you know Jesus says that lust in the heart is the moral equivalent of adultery in the sight of God. In other words, the sheer desire and lustful look is as heinous and contrary to the righteous character of God as the actual deed is. Now it won’t bring the same consequences and judgments upon the individual life as the actual deed, but what I’m saying is, friends, about the time that we think we’ve got it all sewn up and there is no charge that can be laid against us, then the Lord comes to us and says, “Let me see your heart”.

Do you remember the rich young ruler who came to Jesus saying, “What good thing shall I do that I might inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “You know the commandments: do not steal, do not kill, and do not commit adultery.” And the rich young ruler said, “I’m home free, because all of these things I have kept from my youth up.” Jesus replies saying, “But there is one thing that you lack.”  “O.K., there is just one thing that I lack—one thing that I need to improve. What is it?” Jesus says “Go and sell all that you have and give to the poor and thou shall have treasure in heaven, and then come and follow me.” And the Bible tells us that the rich young ruler went away sorrowful for he had great possessions. I want to ask you this: what was wrong with the rich young ruler? He had a covetous heart. Morally speaking, the rich young ruler was a very impressive character. He was a law abiding citizen and proud of it, but my friends, he was self-centered. He was covetous. Jesus told him to go and sell all that he had and give it to the poor; go and sacrifice it all for others. He said I’d rather walk away from Jesus than to get rid of my idols.

By the way, covetousness is the 10th commandment, isn’t it? Have you ever noticed that all of the other commandments have to do with something that we do: thou shalt have no other gods before me, thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, remember the Sabbath to keep it holy, thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, honor thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor – all of these commandments have to do with behavior. The 10th commandment, however, leaves the realm of behavior or action, and moves into the realm of attitudes and motives: thou shalt not covet. And though a person may be like Paul who says that I was a Pharisee of the Pharisees and a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and as touching the law I was blameless, yet Paul says when I finally understood what that 10th commandment meant, it slew me.

Listen to Romans chapter 7:7: “Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin but by the law. For I had not known lust except the law had said thou shalt not covet. [Listen now] But sin taking occasion by the commandment wrought in me all manner of concupiscence for without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came sin revived and I died, and the commandment which was ordained to life I found to be unto death for sin taking occasion by the commandment deceived me and by it slew me.” Now what I wanted from that passage is Paul’s statement: I would not have known lust. If you had asked Paul to give you a definition of lust, being such a meticulous Pharisee and schooled in the rabbinical law and traditions of the fathers as he was, I’m sure Paul could have given you a very theologically correct definition. But Paul says I really didn’t know what it meant in my experience until my eyes were opened, until the commandment came. And I thought I was so perfect, but, he says, that one commandment, the 10th, slew me. It showed me that I could do everything right on the outside of my life, and if my heart was wrong on the inside then that would be enough to banish me to a devil’s hell forever and forever.

The word imputation which is one of the key terms when talking about the doctrine of justification means “to put to someone else’s account”, and this is the heart of the gospel. And Paul tells Philemon, if Onesimus has wronged you … You see Philemon didn’t want to receive Onesimus back; this runaway, no good slave. He says he may have fooled me once, but I won’t give him a chance to do it again. But Paul says receive him as myself, for he is not only a brother to you, but he is a brother to you and to me in the Lord. He is not only a servant to you, but he is now a brother beloved. What had happened in Onesimus’ life is the Lord had brought him to an understanding of the truth; brought him to repentance. And Onesimus had made a profession of faith. Maybe Paul had actually baptized him, and Paul now sends this slave home to make restitution to the master that he had so abused. He tells Onesimus to go home, and he sends this letter with him. Don’t you know when Philemon saw Onesimus coming up the path with that letter he thought – there he is, that no good runaway slave, but then he started reading Paul’s letter. Onesimus might have said to Philemon before you whip me, before you beat me within an inch of my life at least read what Paul has written to you. And then he starts reading Paul’s letter where he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus back and if he has wronged you or owes you anything to put that on my account.

That is what imputation is all about; that’s what the cross is all about my friends. It’s Jesus Christ coming and saying, “Father, if Michael Gowens owes you anything, charge it to me.” I’m glad to tell you today, my beloved, that if you were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world God will never charge you sins against you, because Jesus said to “put it on my account—I will be responsible for paying the sin debt of my child.” You say “Preacher, that’s just too good to be true; I don’t believe it. I’ve heard some salesmen give some pretty good pitches, but that one is too good to be true! You’re saying that I’m not responsible ultimately for my sins, because Jesus took the responsibility for me; ah, if that was true, preacher, that would truly be good news.” That is good news, my friend, and it is true; that’s the gospel. It’s the true gospel. You mean to say I can go out and live any way that I want to? Absolutely not, because as Paul outlines the doctrine of justification in the book of Romans chapter 6 after telling us that we have been justified freely by his grace (Romans 3:24) and after telling us that we have been justified by his blood and saved from wrath through Jesus Christ, then he asks, “What shall we say then to these things? Shall we continue in sin that grace may about – God forbid.” 

I want to say to you today,  if you have ever understood what happened at the cross, that understanding will be the greatest incentive to live in a manner consistent with your position before God. The doctrine of grace, the message of substitutionary atonement—that Jesus took your place and took your punishment and that your sins were charged to his account, and his obedience to the Father was credited to your account, so that when he looks at your bank account today he doesn’t see you as having a net loss, but he sees you as being wealthier than any multimillionaire in this world; he sees you as being in a better state than even Adam was in paradise; he sees you as having the riches of Jesus Christ credited to your account—my beloved, that is the gospel message and it is a powerful incentive to holiness in our lives.

You might say this morning; “Can it be true that God sees me in this condition?” The gospel says, “Yes it is true and it’s the only hope for sinners.” It’s the only message that will suit the case of those who have been shown how bankrupt their condition really is. Put that on my account. The word imputation means “to put to the account”. Our sins were charged to Christ and his righteousness was credited to us. If that is not true then there is no hope for any of us here this morning. II Cor. 5:21 says this: “For he that made him to be sin for us who knew no sin”; that is he had never experienced committing a sin, the one who was so pure and holy and harmless and perfect that sin was the polar opposite to his character; that one who knew no sin was made to be sin for us; in our place, in our stead, and for our benefit, so that we might be made the righteousness of God.

That word “made” is a legal term. Jesus Christ was made to be sin. Now does that mean that he actually became a sinner personally so that he thought dirty thoughts and said blasphemous words? No my friends, but he was charged with sin legally; it was put on his account and he bore the punishment for it. It was as if he had committed every sin that every one of his people have ever committed in their various and respective lives. He paid for all of those sins; he was treated as if he had lived your life. He was made to be sin. Now there was no physical change in him; no personal character change. He was still holy on the cross even though he had been charged with your sins. Even so as he was made to be sin, we have been made the righteousness of God in him.

What I am telling you is that although we struggle today—although you may say, “Preacher, I wonder sometimes whether if I am a stranger to grace.” Do you ever feel like that or am I the only one here this morning who ever wonders if I am a stranger to grace? I wonder sometimes: how can my heart be so cold? You say, “Well, I don’t think preachers should say things like that”. Well, I am telling you today that sometimes I wonder if I am a stranger to grace just because it is so hard. You’d think it would be easier to live a righteous life, wouldn’t you? You’d think it would be easier to get along with people in this world. And I wonder sometimes about somebody who is as mean and nasty and poisonous as I am. The thing is I still have the old nature. Did you know that even after we are born again, we all still have old natures? We sit in judgment of other people and we think we are better than them. We get proud and lifted up in ourselves and become ingrown and self-centered, and we lust and we covet and we make worldly decisions, and we all struggle like that, don’t we? Have you ever wondered, am I a stranger to grace? You say preacher, the money in my pocket right now doesn’t look like that $15,000 that my balance sheet says that I’m worth. But your legal status is a little different that where you live on a daily basis, isn’t it?

I want to tell you, my friends, that even though we struggle right now, the gospel is the report that the judge has already held court, as far as your case is concerned; he has issued the verdict, and do you know what his verdict is – his verdict is that every one of his people is righteous because Jesus Christ paid for their sins. Their trial has already been held. And I don’t know any better news than that: my hope is built this morning on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but I holy lean today on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.

So who is going to bring you back to trial? Who shall lay anything to your charge; who is going to accuse a child of God? You say, “Brother Mike, I can think of a number of things I could be accused of”, but I am saying that before the bar of God’s justice, court has already been held. The trial is already over; the verdict has already been issued. It is God that declares righteous. When you read that word “justify” just insert the words “declares righteous”. Who is he that shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that has declared his elect to be righteous by virtue of the redemption that Jesus Christ has accomplished at the cross.

May God add his blessings today: we will come back Lord willing tonight and be more specific. But I have tried to simplify a very complicated doctrine today and it’s an important doctrine – I hope you have learned something. It is important, my friends, that we understand this message which is at the very heart and soul of the gospel story.

Justification: Precisely Defined, Part 2

Michael L. Gowens

Lexington Primitive Baptist Church

September 14, 2003

The apostle Paul asks the question: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” and his answer is this: “It is God that justifieth.” We spent the bulk of our time this morning defining this very important Bible word “justification”. Justification means “to declare righteous”. And we painted the picture this morning of a courtroom proceeding in which a charge is made and a prosecuting attorney presents a case to argue for the guilt of the alleged criminal; the defense attorney refutes the evidence and presents his case in defense of the alleged criminal. Then the judge issues the verdict and, in the case of a guilty verdict, sentences the one who is condemned. And we said that justification has to do with the verdict in a courtroom proceeding. It means, once again, “to declare righteous”. As we closed our time this morning, we were defining the words righteous and imputation. And tonight I want us to look more specifically at this word justification that we see in our text: “It is God that justifieth.” Now again I make the point tonight that this word does not mean to make righteous but to declare righteous.

The Hebrew word describes a judicial pronouncement of innocence. Notice: it’s a pronouncement; something that a person says, a declaration, a judicial pronouncement of innocence, an acquittal. If you want a biblical definition, look at the first time that this word is used in the Bible – Deuteronomy 25:1. There is such a thing in Bible study as “the law of first occurrence” in which the first occurrence of a subject or word or some kind of topic sets the pace for the use of that term throughout scripture. And here’s the first occurrence of the word justify in the Bible in Deuteronomy 25:1, and notice how the definition that I have given you fits with this verse; to declare righteous not to make someone righteous, but to say that they are righteous. Listen to this: “If there be a controversy between men” (have you ever known of a situation where that was true? There are controversies between men on a regular basis in our world) “and they come unto judgment” (so they come before the judge) “that the judges may judge them, then shall they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.” Now when you read the word justify, just read that definition I’ve given you in the place of that word (“…then shall they declare righteous the righteous”). You say, well why would you declare a righteous man righteous? Well whenever two people have a dispute and they come before the judge, he is to hear the evidence and he is to declare the person who is in the right; he is to declare him righteous. “Then shall they justify the righteous” – do you see how the word means to declare righteous? It doesn’t mean that he makes him anything that he is not. It simply means he acknowledges that, he confesses it, he pronounces that this person is righteous and this person is wicked. “Then shall they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.” 

The importance of emphasizing the word declare and the definition of the word justification are illustrated in the passages in the Bible which talk about ”justifying God”. Listen to a few of those passages. Psalm 51:4 is the first place I will take you. Now if justify means to makerighteous, then I want to ask you how does this verse make sense? David says: “Against thee and thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest and be clear when thou judgeth.”. Notice he says: “I make this confession that thou mightest be justified.” Now in what sense is God justified when he speaks and clear when he judges? Does that mean that we can make God righteous? No, it simply means we declare him to be such. David is saying: “Lord I acknowledge my sins and you are right in the way you are dealing with me”. That’s exactly what he is saying, and, by the way, that’s the true attitude of repentance; to acknowledge that God is right in the way that he judges us.

Look at another verse in Luke chapter 7 in the New Testament, verse 29. Now I’m trying to establish the definition of this term. Maybe you say tonight, “Preacher I’m not interested in being that precise.” Well, again I remind you that we serve a precise God and Bible words are used on purpose, and I think it is important for us understand their definitions or else our thinking about these doctrines will be incorrect. Listen to Luke chapter 7 now and the 29th verse: “And all the people that heard him and the publicans justified God being baptized with the baptism of John.” Now if the word justify means to make righteous then how does that fit with this verse of scripture: “they all justified God”. Does that mean that they made God something that he is not? Absolutely not; it means they simply declared him to be righteous by obeying his word; by being baptized with the baptism of John they acknowledged God to be who he is. They justified God.

Let’s look at one other verse. In I Timothy chapter 3 verse 16 it says this: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness. God was manifest in the flesh.” Now this is talking about what historic fact? Well it’s talking about the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He says it’s “the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh (watch this), justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” That verse says in no uncertain terms that Jesus was justified in the Spirit. Now again if the word justify means to make righteous, then in what sense was Jesus made righteous? The word means to declare righteous. Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by the Holy Spirit. That’s what that phrase means: he was justified in the spirit; that is, he was vindicated, he was exonerated, he was proven to be who he said he was. And at what point was Jesus justified in the Spirit? – When he was resurrected from the dead. Romans 1:4 says “he was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead according to the Spirit of holiness”. The Holy Spirit put his divine signature on the identity of the Son of God when Jesus was raised from the dead. There is no doubt that Jesus is divine anymore after he comes back from the dead. He is declared to be the Son of God with power.

So the definition of the word justification is very important. I suggest for your consideration tonight, my friends, that the biggest mistake people make when they talk about the doctrine of justification is that they forget the definition of justification and they confuse it with being made righteous: they confuse justification with imputation and the two are not the same thing. The righteousness of Christ was imputed to us at the cross and on the basis of the fact that we were made righteous by Jesus Christ on the cross, God declares his people to be righteous by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. There is a very important distinction between the imputation of righteousness and the declaration of righteousness. Now that’s a fine theological point. You say Brother Mike you’re splitting hairs, but there is a reason for sticking with the biblical definition of the term “justification” because one must be made righteous before he can be declared righteous.

What would you think of a judge who declared a wicked man righteous? Have you ever known of a case where a judge declares a guilty murderer, I mean someone that all the evidence says is guilty of this crime, and the judge says he’s acquitted? When you declare righteous a person who is wicked then you have slighted the law; you’ve made a travesty of the very principle of justice. Isn’t that right? That’s why the Bible is so clear and so specific in talking to the judges in Old Testament Israel: God was very interested that the judges would judge righteous judgment; that they would not justify the wicked.

Look at two verses: Proverbs chapter 17 verse 15. Now I’m teaching tonight. We are learning the meaning of words, and the reason that we are learning the meaning of this word is because it is so frequently misused and misunderstood. Ninety-nine out of 100 people who talk about justification say that it has to do with being made righteous. I’m saying tonight, that before God declares somebody righteous, they have to be made righteous by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Justification per se (the word) means to declare righteous. Look at Proverbs 17 verse 15: “He that justifieth the wicked and he that condemneth the just even they both are an abomination unto the Lord.” Now that is a verse that every judge needs to write on stone tablets and put in his courtroom. I think there was a judge in Alabama recently who wrote some Bible verses on some stone tablets and put in a courtroom and he was told to take them out. But here’s a verse – “He that justifies the wicked and he that condemns the just …” Now the words justify and condemn are opposites; they are antonyms. They are different poles on the magnet. Remember our verse in Deuteronomy 25:1, the first occurrence of this word in the Bible when he says “When men come before the judge for judgment then you shall justify the righteous and you shall condemn the wicked.” The words are opposites. In this verse we’re told that both the judge who justifies the wicked and the judge who condemns the just are an abomination to the Lord. Have you ever known of a case in jurisprudence in civil society in which a judge pronounced a wicked man in the right and pronounced a righteous man in the wrong? Where a man who didn’t do wrong ended up paying the penalty and a man who did do wrong got off without incurring any penalty whatsoever. It happens almost on a daily basis, doesn’t it? By the way, from a strictly social and cultural perspective, that is the reason that we need God fearing judges in our court system. That’s the reason that the Bible talks about having men who fear God to issue judgments according to the law. 

Another verse very similar to this is Isaiah 5:23. Isaiah says basically the same thing here: “Woe unto them (verse 22 says) that are mighty to drink wine and men of strength to mingle strong drink; which justify the wicked for reward and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him.” This is describing a judge who accepts a little money or some kind of reward in order to say that this man didn’t do anything wrong,–he can go free. And everybody says what do you mean? He’s guilty: it’s as plain as day. But the Lord says: “Woe unto them …which justify the wicked for reward and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him.” Now the point that I’m making is that a person must be just before he may be justified or declared just. 

Job was perplexed with the question: “I know it is so the truth…”, and why did he know that? He knew that because he could see that God dealt with man in favor, that God blesses people. But he also knew that God was great and righteous and that man is sinful. So he says: “I know it is so the truth but how shall man be just with God?” How can man be brought into this legal status of favor before the bar of divine justice? Again I say tonight, we are not talking about any change in personal character when we talk about justification. We’re not talking about anything done to a person or inside of a person, we’re not talking about anything applied to a person, we’re talking strictly about legal status—about a person’s record.

I used the illustration this morning about my balance sheet and then about the money that I have in my pocket. My balance sheet (and I don’t know how much it would be – I haven’t done a balance sheet on myself in years) lists all of my assets and then my liabilities. It subtracts my liabilities from my assets and gives me my net worth. That’s how much I’m worth. And I suspect with a house and maybe more cars than I care to admit to owning or paying on and with the various property that I have accumulated over the years, that my net worth in is the tens of thousands of dollars – maybe more than that. I’m talking about my legal status – that’s how much I’m worth. Now you say, Brother Mike how much money do you have? Well, in my pocket, I have a piece of thread that just dropped to the floor and probably about 66 cents. I may have a couple of dollar bills in my wallet. Now our legal status before God is that we are righteous. You say Brother Mike how do you know that all of God’s elect are righteous before God? Yes, for Christ has made them righteous at the cross. You say, “Well who says they’re righteous?” I answer, God has declared them to be righteous. We’ve been justified freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. When Jesus Christ paid the redemption price on the cross, that price made us righteous, and God the Father has now declared us to be righteous. That declaration by the way is published in the gospel. Every time the gospel is preached the verdict that God has issued regarding your case, the verdict, my friends, is published again and again and again. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. Now I’m getting ahead of myself, but we are not talking about any change inside of a person, we are talking strictly about legal status or the person’s record. In other words, we are talking about the way the law views you, not the way that you and I appear in the mirror.

You know I might look in the mirror and say I am bruised and broken and beaten down by the pressures of life, but do you know as far as the law is concerned how the law views me? When it comes time to pay my taxes I might say I am just beaten down with all these financial pressures in life, and I look in the mirror and say, “I am just overwhelmed; I’m drowning in a sea of debt.” But you know when it comes time to pay my taxes, the law sends me a bill and they expect me to pay. The law views me in one way; I see myself in another way. When we talk about justification, my friends, we are talking not about our ability; we are talking about our legal status before God.

Let me illustrate it like this. Consider a job applicant. Most job applications today are done on the internet, I suppose, or by people dropping off a resume at a place of employment. If you are going to apply for a job, you fill out your resume and you take it to the place of employment or you fax it or you send an attachment on an e-mail, and you send it to the employer. Think of a case like this. They call somebody up after receiving a resume and they say we would like to interview you. And then this person shows up and they interview this person and the human resources agent tells the corporate executive after the interview,  “On paper he looks impressive, but in person, well, that’s a different story.” Could that happen? Think of that situation: on paper, I mean, he or she looks just like the kind of person we want to hire for our business – on paper, but in person, it’s like it isn’t even the same person. I want to tell you, my friends, when we talk about justification we are talking about “on paper”. Does that make sense? We’re not talking about your personal character, we’re not talking about how good you’re doing, we’re not talking about what other people think; justification by-in-large has to do with your legal status not your personal character – not anything done inside of you or to you. Now many people make a mistake here. 

I make this point because there are two ideas that are prevalent in religious circles today regarding justification. One is that a person is made just when they are baptized or when they take the Eucharist: the idea that justification comes by works – by being baptized or by participating in the sacraments, and the technical term for this is sacerdotalism or sacramentarianism. But this is the idea that when a person takes communion and they are baptized, then they are saved; they are made righteous by that act – justification by works. Now the Bible teaches justification by works; not like that, but it teaches justification by works. In James chapter 2 he says: “You see then (talking about Abraham) how that a man is justified by works and not by faith only.” O.K. there’s the idea that a person is made just; that whenever a person is baptized or takes communion that the righteousness of Christ is infused into that person. What is the mistake made in this idea of imparted or infused righteousness? The mistake is made in this sense: the person who says that when a person is baptized that the righteousness of Christ is infused into them has forgotten the definition of justification. It doesn’t mean to make righteous. It does not mean to do anything to a person. It means simply to declare to be righteous. 

There’s another group of people who believe that a person is justified not when they are baptized or partake in communion, but when they believe and receive the word. The Bible does teach justification by faith. We quoted the verse in James chapter 2 and in Romans chapter 4, verse 5 we read this language: “But to him that worketh not but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” And then he goes forward in chapter 4 as he did in the previous chapter to talk about justification by faith. Galatians chapters 2 and 3 also talk about justification by faith as well as Romans chapter 5, verse 1, probably the most familiar verse to us where Paul says: “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And many people when they read verses like that interpret it to mean this: that you are made just when you believe, that the redemption that Christ accomplished at the cross is applied to an individual when he believes. I want to say tonight, my beloved, that redemption is not applied to the individual at the point of believing the gospel – it’s applied to the individual at the point of regeneration, i.e. when a person is born again. That’s the point at which what Jesus did on the cross is personally applied to the heart of the individual. It is then as Galatians 4:6 says that God sends forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts whereby you cry Abba Father. If you want proof that the redemption that Christ accomplished on the cross is applied to the heart of the individual in regeneration, look at Titus chapter 3, verses 5 – 7. Titus 3:5 says: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us by the washing of regeneration”. There’s the word, and it means you’re quickened, you’re born again. It speaks of an inward change in which the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the heart and makes alive a person who was previously dead in trespasses and in sins. He says we’re saved by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost which he said on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior that being justified by his grace we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

What is the relationship between justification and regeneration? They are not the same thing, but they go together in God’s plan of redemption. What is the relationship between justification and regeneration? It is simply this: we are made new by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration – we’re cleaned up on the inside. We are vitally brought into a union with Christ and we are raised from death to life, because Jesus Christ purchased eternal life for us on the cross. That’s how these verses must be understood; not by works of righteousness we’ve done, but according to his mercy he saved us by the washing of regeneration. Now let me ask you the question tonight: when were you saved? Well I think it’s appropriate to answer that question by saying I was saved in 33 A.D. I mean in a very real sense Jesus Christ finished the work of redemption, did he not? He accomplished salvation. But of course the Bible teaches us that those that Christ represented legally must be personally and vitally brought to a state of life in Jesus Christ. And I think it is also appropriate to answer that question: we are saved when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our hearts, dwelling within us and we are born again. A person is saved when he is brought into this vital relationship with the Lord. We are saved legally at the cross and vitally in the new birth. And what the Holy Spirit does in your life and in your heart was purchased for you when Jesus died on the cross. These verses in Titus chapter 3 teach that fact. He saved us by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ. On what basis did he do this work of grace in our hearts? – Through Jesus Christ our Lord that being justified by his grace we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This passage teaches that because God declared us to be righteous, he therefore brings us into a vital union with himself in the new birth. Now that’s pretty technical. Let’s go back to the point that I’m making about justification by baptism and justification by belief for just a moment. My friend, redemption is not applied to the individual when he believes the gospel; it’s applied at the point of regeneration. So justification by faith does not concern the application of redemption, it concerns the assurance of redemption—not anything done to you; rather justification by faith concerns the assurance. 

What I’ve accused the Calvinists of doing, as tactfully and diplomatically as I know how, whenever they say that what Jesus did on the cross is personally applied to you when you believe the gospel, is that they are mixing metaphors. Every English teacher knows that it’s grammatically incorrect to mix metaphors – to take two images and mix them together. Justification is a courtroom picture; regeneration is a delivery room picture. They are two different images, right? They are two different metaphors, and to say that a person is justified at the point that he is regenerated is to mix metaphors. I mean, one takes place before a bar of justice with a judge on the bench, and another takes place in the delivery room. They are two different doctrines. My friends justification and regeneration are not the same thing.

Now that I’ve said what it doesn’t mean, let me give you an example of what justification by faith is all about. Look at Hebrews chapter 11 verse 4. I believe in this verse we have an excellent example or illustration of justification by faith. Now we’re talking about Abel: “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain by which [listen to the language] he obtained witness that he was righteous.” God is testifying. Now who’s making the declaration, who is testifying, who is pronouncing, who is witnessing that Abel is a righteous man? God is, right? This is justification by faith. By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. He is worshipping God not according to his own ingenuity and imagination. You know Cain said, “I think I’ll just bring this to the Lord as a sacrifice – I’ll bring the fruit of my ground”, but Abel said, “I’m going to do what God said. I’m going to worship him as he has prescribed in his word”. That’s what it means to worship by faith. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain by which he obtained witness that he was righteous.” Now it did not make him righteous, but God declared him to be what he already was: “by which he obtained witness that he was righteous”. God is testifying of his gifts and “by it he being dead yet speaketh.” That’s a powerful verse to define justification by faith: it means to declare righteous. And God declared Abel to be righteous because of Abel’s faith on this occasion. His faith was evidence that he was righteous.

Now with that said tonight, let me try to summarize what the Bible teaches on this subject of justification by giving you five simple statements. It hasn’t been very simple thus far tonight, but let me give you five simple statements and we are going to just build a case as we talk about all of the truths that are involved in the doctrine of justification. We have to start where the Bible starts with the principle number 1: Man is not righteous. Would everybody tonight agree with that; I hope you would. Man is not righteous. Listen to Psalm 143 verse 2. The psalmist David says as he prays to the Lord: “Enter not into judgment with thy servant for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” Lord, don’t enter into judgment with me for in your sight no man living shall be declared righteous. Does the definition fit there? In your sight no man living will be justified. The reason that no man living can be declared righteous is because no man is righteous in and of himself. Romans 3:10 teaches us that: “There is none righteous.” And perhaps you’re here tonight and you say, “Preacher I think there may be one exception to that”. Well Paul adds this statement that seals the case: “no not one.” “There is none righteous, no not one.” Ecclesiastes 7:20 says: “For there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not.” The word just means righteous. There is not a righteous man. By nature my friends, man is not righteous. You see the many good things that we see done in human history and the many good civil acts are still unfit to commend us to Divine favor. Isaiah 64 verse 6 says this: “All our righeousnesses are as filthy rags.” Somebody says, “I’m a pretty good character”; God says, “That’s a filthy rag”. Would you want to go and stand before the President in old, dirty clothes? Maybe you’ve just changed the oil in your old clunker and then you hear that the President is in town. Would you want to go shake hands with the President or with the Governor whenever your hands were dirty and your clothes were soiled and you needed a bath? I want to tell you, my beloved, all of our righteousnesses apart from divine grace are as filthy rags. We are all as an unclean thing for we all do fade as a leaf. Just like a leaf that is here today and then it is so fragile that it’s gone tomorrow. We fade as a leaf and our iniquities like the wind have carried us away – A graphic picture there of how fragile and fleeting is our case. So man is not righteous. And by the way, he needs to be if he wants a relationship with God, because God is righteous. But because man is not righteous he can’t make himself righteous. Galatians 2:21 says this: “I do not frustrate the grace of God for if righteousness come by the law then Christ is dead in vain.”

The second principle that the Bible teaches as we build up to this doctrine of justification is this: Christ made his people righteous at the cross. Jesus Christ made his people righteous when he died for them at the cross. Listen with me if you will to Romans chapter 5 verse 19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” Now that one man is Adam, and he represented as the federal head, all humanity; he represented as the first parent and as the locum tenens he represented all of his posterity. “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” – So that word made means to be legally constituted as such. That is, our legal status by virtue of Adam’s transgression is that we’re condemned – we are born condemned. Does the Bible teach that everyone is born with a chance and then if you lose your chance you’ll be condemned? No it teaches that we are born into this world under the sentence of divine wrath. “We are born by nature” says Ephesians chapter 2 “We are children of wrath even as others.” We’re alienated from God, dead in trespasses and in sins, we’re depraved, we’re sinners by nature and sinners soon by practice. We are sinners by representation, my friends, because by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. There are two things that I want you to notice in that verse. Salvation is by works; not by our works but by the works that Jesus did, by obedience. Somebody has to be obedient for sinners to be saved. The Bible never says that obedient is unnecessary for salvation. The Bible just says that man can’t obey God because of his fallen condition, but Jesus Christ obeyed the Father in our place. “By one man’s obedience were many made righteous.” Jesus lived up to the law; he satisfied the demands of God’s law. Everything that God required Christ lived up to in our place and as our substitute

The second thing that I want you to notice is that not only were we saved by Christ’s obedience, but it says we were made righteous. Again that word made means to be legally constituted as such. It’s the same word in Galatians 4:4 when it says: “When the fullness of the time was come God sent forth his Son made of a woman made under the law.” Legally, Jesus Christ came into this world; his legal status was that he was subject to the law – the law, if you please, of sin and death – as our sin bearer, made under the law. This word made is a legal term. “Many were made righteous,” indicating that this legal status was conferred to their account – “By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” O.K. man is not righteous by nature. Christ made his people righteous at the cross. Another verse I looked at this morning in II Corinthians 5:21 says “For God hath made him to be sin.” Now if the verb “to make” means to do something inside of a person, then you are going to have the position that Jesus Christ became a sinner, and my friends, I’m sorry, but I believe that’s an unbiblical position. Jesus Christ did not think any dirty thoughts, he never spoke any blasphemous words, he never behaved in the flesh or in carnality; Jesus never sinned, but yet he was made to be sin – legally constituted as sin itself. Because we are under the curse, he took that curse for us. It says “For he hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Christ made us righteous at the cross, right? Because Christ has made us righteous, now God declares the elect, everyone that Jesus represented on the cross, to be righteous – the Lord Jesus made them righteous by his imputed righteousness on their behalf. What I am saying is that Christ’s redemption is the basis, the ground by which God now justifies sinners.

You say how can he justify me? I’m not righteous. How can he declare me righteous? You are legally, because Christ made you righteous on the cross. Does that make any sense? I hope it does. Just trying to divide the subtle nuances in scripture is vitally important to our own understanding of the gospel message. Because of what Jesus did in his redemptive work, God now declares his people to be righteous.

Look at a few verses. Romans 3:24: “Being justified (declared righteous) freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Does that make sense? On the basis of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, God now declares us to be righteous. He made us righteous, because in that redemption Christ imputed, he credited, he put his righteousness to our account. My account showed a net loss, but Jesus imputed, he credited his perfect obedience to my ledger book. You know I have one of those big black ledger books at home that has a 25-column, legal pad pages that I use for personal bookkeeping. Actually I never bring it out until about April 10th getting ready for April 15th, and then I’ll rush feverishly trying to get all of my checks in order and trying to tally the score of how much I owe the government. Maybe you’ve seen those – the accountants use them. Now, my ledger book before God showed a net loss, showed that I was “in the red” by nature. My account status showed that I was in debt 10,000 talents without a farthing to pay. Jesus Christ not only paid my debt, but he took his perfect obedience and credited it to my account. My sins were charged against him, his righteousness was credited to me when he died on the cross and he took my place. So that now, when God looks at my account, he sees me differently than I see myself when I look in the mirror. I look at myself and I say, “What a rotten excuse for a human being, not fit to live much less to preach”. God looks at me and he says “Righteous, just like my Son”. You say Brother Mike miracle of miracles how can it be? It is by virtue of the substitutionary sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ in my stead.

And now because he’s made us righteous, God declares us to be righteous freely by his grace, not because we’re good or because we’ve worked for it or been baptized, or we’ve believed or we’ve repented or we’ve turned over a new leaf or made moral changes, but because of his grace – freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 5:9 says, “Much more then being now justified by his blood (now this isn’t something that we are talking about that we have to wait for in the future, it is a present reality. God has presently declared all of his people, all of his elect righteous ‘being now declared righteous’ by the blood of Jesus, we shall be saved  from wrath through him.” The blood of Christ, you see, is the basis on which God has issued the verdict of “righteous” concerning all of His chosen people.

In Isaiah 53:11, the prophet Isaiah some 700 years before the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ prophecies in no uncertain terms that the Messiah by his knowledge, – that is by kinship to us, and that word knowledge means intimate kinship; he came to where we were, he took our place – by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many. He will secure for them this righteous status by which I will declare them to be righteous. Obviously the focus there is the cross of Jesus Christ; he’s pointing forward to his work on the cross as the basis by which God declares sinners to be right. Sinners aren’t right, but God has declared them to be right, because, legally speaking, they are right through the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now the third thing I want to say is that man is not righteous, but Christ made us righteous on the cross and God has subsequently declared us to be righteous. God has issued the verdict. The judge on the bench has said “not guilty”. You say, “Well I don’t know anything about that verdict. When court was held back in 33 A.D. when Jesus died on the cross, I wasn’t there; I don’t know anything about that verdict.”  Well I want to tell you that God has published the verdict; he has written it down in his law book and in the records of the court. Do you know where the records of the court are? – Right here [holding up the Bible]. You can read the will right here and you can read what the court decided regarding the case of all of God’s elect. Also he sent some court spokesmen around the world to publish the good news.

Do you remember a few years ago when they had all of these legal maneuvers over the Florida election results for the presidency of the United States? Do you remember how the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court met to consider the arguments? Did Chief Justice Renquist in the U.S. Supreme come out and tell us what they decided? No, he sent out a court spokesman. At this very moment I can remember, I can close my eyes and see that guy from the Florida Supreme Court coming out to that little podium outside of that mammoth Greek architectural structure and saying “the justices have decided” and giving his pronouncement, telling us what the verdict was. I want to say tonight, that is precisely the job of the gospel minister. D you know what I am as a gospel minister? I am a spokesman for the Court of heaven. I am here to publish the verdict that the judge has declared. The judge has issued the verdict. God has given the word. Psalm 68:11 says “God gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.” I’m going to tell you my friends: the judge of all the earth has spoken. He has issued the verdict once and for all. You say, “Well, where can I find out what was decided regarding my case?” – Listen to the preachers, read it in the court records, find it in the word of God. 

Now we’re talking about justification by faith right now. We’ve talked about the fact that we were made righteous when Jesus died on the cross and God has declared all of his people to the righteous. Now we are talking about how we have come to know what happened, and this is where we start talking about justification by faith. The gospel reports God’s verdict concerning the elect. Listen again to Romans 1:16: Paul says “I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” Now theme of Romans is “the gospel of God”. What is “the gospel”? Well, it is “good news.” Now I ask you a question: Does the gospel make anything real, does the news create reality? News never creates reality. When I listen to Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather (I’d rather listen to Tom than Dan), they don’t create reality, they simply report. Now, maybe an argument could be made that they create by their influence, but still the point is that news comes after the reality of the fact. And the gospel, my friends is the good news of what Christ has accomplished. It’s the good news of what God has planned and of Jesus Christ and the victory he has won. This verse says I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. Now why would Paul say that if there wasn’t the temptation to be ashamed of it? And the temptation to be ashamed of the gospel is in terms of the fact that man doesn’t really like to hear the gospel message for the gospel says that people are rotten, no-good sinners, and people don’t like to hear that. The gospel says “You’re helpless and weak and that you need help from the outside”, and that’s offensive to man’s pride. Paul says “I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation” – there is a deliverance, a salvation in the gospel – “to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein” – watch this – “is the righteous of God” – that is God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ our Lord – “revealed.” What does it mean to reveal something? It means to take off the cover, to shine the light on, to manifest, to declare, to illuminate; it doesn’t mean to create reality, it means to reveal. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith.” The gospel now reports God’s verdict that sinners are righteous in and through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s take it a step further. You and I hear the gospel and we believe it. We say, “That’s good news, preacher; that’s the only message that suits my case”. Well, I want to say this tonight: here’s the 4th principle. First of all man is not righteous; secondly, God has made us righteous through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross; thirdly, the gospel reports the verdict – it reveals what God has done for us. Fourthly, the believer is the one who hears that publication, that report of God’s verdict, and reckons himself to be righteous in Jesus Christ.

Listen to this. Romans 6:11: “Likewise reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.” Now that is a strange verse. Paul is telling us to reckon ourselves dead unto sin and alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord and he says when you make that judgment about your own case, then that should translate into the way that you live. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body.” Now here’s the point that I want. The word reckon in this verse means “to make a judgment”; it has reference to a person’s legal status; it’s a forensic term just like justification. It’s a word that has to do with the court system. He says I want you to pass judgment on yourself. What do you think about yourself?

There are three questions my friends that are important, but they are not equally important. The first is: What do people think about you?Now that’s important; what is your reputation? Do you care about what people think about you? I think all of us care to some degree – we should to some degree. It shouldn’t dominate us, but what do people think about Michael Gowens? Somebody says he’s rotten; he’s a miserable excuse for a human being. What do people think about you? That’s important, but it’s not the most important thing.

The second is, What do you think about yourself? Are you a child of God? Are you headed to heaven or bound for eternal punishment? What judgment do you pass on yourself? You know people are always passing judgment on us, but we are also passing judgment on ourselves on a daily basis. Isn’t that right? That’s important, but it’s still not the most important question.

The most important question is: What does God think about you? What does God say about your case? I’ve asked those three questions and I want you to picture in your mind the Fayette County Court. Then picture if you will a state court in Frankfort. Then I want you to think about the Supreme Court. What does the Fayette County Court say about you? Well that’s important, but you know if you lose your case there you can appeal, can’t you, to a higher court. Then if you lose your case there, you can go to an even higher court yet, but once the Supreme Court speaks there is no higher court than that. I want to tell you that God is the Supreme Justice, and he has already issued a verdict regarding your case. Whether you are wicked or righteous, God has already issued a verdict that cannot be changed, regardless of what people think about you or what you think about yourself – that cannot be changed. But still it’s important that we come to live a life that is consistent with our eternal position before God. That’s why he says “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.” That command simply means to paint yourself into the gospel story.

I’ve told the story before about Gettysburg when my family and I visited the battlefield there some years back – a Civil War battlefield. At the end of the day we went into this cyclorama where a mural had been painted on the wall, and the guide showed his flashlight on different places in the artwork and explained that this is Pickett’s charge, this is this part of the battle, and this is this particular house, and then at the very end of his little spiel he shined his light on a single gentleman leaning up against a tree with his foot propped up against the tree. He asked “Does anyone know who that is?” We all said “no”, and he said “Well, that’s the artist that painted the picture. He painted himself into the picture.” And he said, “Notice that he gave himself a military uniform and he gave himself the union blue, and then he gave himself the highest rank on his shoulder – a general’s bars.” You say, “That’s pretty presumptuous—to paint yourself into the picture and to give yourself such a high position for a lowly artist.” Did you know that that is what the gospel calls upon every one of us to do when we hear it preached? The gospel says, “God loved a people, Christ died for that people, the Holy Spirit calls them, and they will all be preserved, not one will be lost and they will live with the Lord in heaven someday, forever and forever.” The gospel says, “Now you paint yourself into the picture. Say the Lord loved his people and he loved me. Jesus died for that people and he died for me. The Holy Spirit calls that people and he called me. God will securely keep and preserve that people; he will preserve me and one day I’m going to live with him in heaven. I’m a child of the king, hallelujah”. Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin. Make a judgment of your case.

You say, “Well, Brother Mike, I look at all the evidence; I look at all my thoughts and my deeds and I say the judgment that I make is that I’m condemned.” Look at the gospel evidence, my friend. The gospel evidence is that Christ loved you though you were unworthy of his favor, he died for you, he paid the price, he bore your burdens, and he satisfied the demands of divine justice. The gospel evidence is the basis on which we can reckon ourselves to be dead indeed unto sin and alive unto God. This is what justification by faith is all about. The gospel declares all of the elect to be righteous. The believer is the person who has the right to say that declaration is to me, and he gets the peace and the joy of that message and the assurance of it in his own heart. Remember the publican, a burdened sinner, who went upon up to the temple to pray and he came home justified. That doesn’t mean he went a dead alien sinner and came home a child a God; it means he went a burdened, guilty sinner and he came home with peace in his conscience. He heard the echoes of the gavel of Supreme Court, and that’s a sweet sound my friends. Court is adjourned – not guilty. He heard those echoes in his own heart and conscience, because he pled for mercy. He looked to the mercy seat, to the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the basis of standing before God. I want to say that when you believe the gospel, that faith is an evidence of your righteous status before God. Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness. How do we know that Abraham was righteous? How do we know what his status was before God? Faith is the evidence. It’s the proof of a righteous status before God. Acts 13:39 says: “By him all that believe are justified.” The believer is already justified; he is already declared righteous. Belief is therefore the evidence, and we get the peace as Romans 5:1 says of that message whenever we believe and embrace the gospel.

Finally, good works manifest and give evidence of a person’s righteousness. Listen to Psalm 106:30. Now this is a passage that recounts some of the history of the children of Israel, and I will close with this. Now you remember the children of Israel had joined themselves to Baal-peor; they were worshipping idols, eating the sacrifices of the dead, provoking God to anger, and there is a plague from God that breaks out upon them and one man gets tired of it as he sees an Israelite man and a Moabite woman engaged in very illicit activity. Phinehas is fed up with it. So do you know what he does? He stands up and takes his javelin, he walks over there and he smites them both to the ground. Pretty severe, wouldn’t you say? “Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed. And that was counted unto him for righteousness unto all generations.” Just like Abraham’s faith was counted as evidence that he was righteous, so Phinehas’ good works on this occasion are counted unto him for righteousness. It is the evidence that he is standing in a righteous position before God. James teaches the same thing in James chapter 2 when he says “Abraham our father was justified by works” when he offered up his son Isaac upon the altar. You see, by works was faith made perfect, for faith without works is dead. Good works manifest and give evidence of a person’s righteousness.

Let me summarize like this: this is the message—that Christ made his people righteous at the cross and God has subsequently declared them to be just. It is only because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross that God has conferred a righteous status to each of his elect. It is God that justifieth so that none can charge them anymore. Then my friends, God declares them to be righteous and that declaration of righteousness is subsequently published and proclaimed in the gospel. And the person who believes the gospel finds the peace and assurance of it in his own heart and conscience. Then the good works in that individual’s life are manifestations of his righteous status before God.

Now this is the doctrine of justification as far as I can tell – it’s what I believe. I hope it makes some sense to you, because it is indeed a glorious doctrine. Paul says “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” And his answer is: no-one can because it is God who has declared them to be all that the law requires them to be.

May God add his blessings. Thank you for your patient attention. I hope some of these thoughts have been helpful to you.