RPM, Volume 12, Number 48, November 28 to December 4, 2010

Our Righteous Standing

The Doctrine of Justification

By John Stevenson

After graduating with a Bachelors Degree in Theology from Florida Bible College, John went on to receive his Masters of Divinity from Knox Theological Seminary and his Doctorate from Reformed Theological Seminary. John website is John Stevenson's Bible Study Page.

And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. "‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' "But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'" (Luke 18:9-13).

Two men. Both are Jewish. Both are descendants of Abraham. Both have come to the temple to pray. The first is a Pharisee. He is a fundamentalist. He holds to the literal interpretation of the Scriptures. As a member of the sect of the Pharisees, he has dedicated his life to the keeping of the Law of God. He reads the Law daily. He prays several times a day. He gives his tithe to the Temple. He is respectable in the eyes of the religious hierarchy. Everyone agrees that he is a good man.

Standing nearby is the other man. This man is a tax-gatherer. He has gone to the Roman officials and has purchased a franchise from the Roman Empire to collect taxes from the subjugated people on behalf of Rome. He is required to turn over a specified amount of money to the Romans, and anything over this amount he is permitted to keep for himself. Therefore, he makes his profit by deliberately overcharging people on their taxes. He has betrayed his countrymen to become a thief for the Romans. He is a Benedict Arnold. He has sold out to the Romans for money. No one will have anything to do with him. He holds the same social caste as a prostitute.

Each of these men comes to the Temple. Each of them prays. I think that I can even say that each of them was sincere in his prayer. Now I want you to notice what Jesus said about these two men and the results of their prayers...

tell you, this man went does to his house JUSTIFIED rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:14).
Both of these men were sinners when they came into the Temple, although one was much more obvious in his sinning. But one of these men went out of the Temple different than the other. The Tax-collector was JUSTIFIED.


What does it mean to be "justified"? The most common definition which I have heard is that it makes me "just-as-if-I'd never sinned." This contains a certain amount of truth, but I suggest that it is inadequate.

The word "justify" is taken from the Greek root word "righteous." This gives us a clue as to its meaning. It has to do with righteousness. It describes the act of declaring that a person or thing is righteous.

Now this it important. The act of justification does not MAKE a person righteous. It is merely a declaration that he IS righteous. This is seen in the fact that it is used to describe the righteousness of God...

And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard this, they ACKNOWLEDGED GOD'S JUSTICE, having been baptized with the baptism of John. (Luke 7:29).
This phrase should literally be translated, "They JUSTIFIED God." This tells us something of the meaning of justification. They were not doing anything to make God more righteous than He already was. They were merely declaring that God was righteous.

This concept of JUSTIFICATION was commonly used as a legal term in which a court of law might officially declare that a man was righteous - that he had not broken the law. This is different from being pardoned. A man who had been pardoned might be released, even though he were a guilty criminal worthy of death. However, a man who was justified was being declared innocent of any wrong-doing.

Now we come back to the case of the tax-gatherer in Luke 18:14. This man was a guilty sinner. He was one who had freely admitted his guilt. And yet, he had not merely been pardoned. Jesus said that this man went away JUSTIFIED. This man was declared to be righteous.

Does this mean that he had not really sinned? Does it mean that his sins were not all that bad and that they could be overlooked? Does it mean that the man stopped sinning?

There are crucial questions here that go far beyond this one man. WE have been justified. That is a part of what it means to be a Christian. God has declared us to be righteous. But how can God declare a man to be righteous when that man is really a guilty sinner? The answer can only be found in the imputation of righteousness.


He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In this single verse, Paul pictures two different aspects of the work of Christ on our behalf.

1. The Imputation of our sins upon Christ.

Jesus became sin on our behalf. This does not mean that He actually became a sinner or that He began to sin. He has lived through all eternity without sin and He will always be perfect in His righteous character.

How did He become sin on our behalf? What really happened on the cross? Our sins were put to His account. He was credited with our sins. While He was on the cross, God the Father treated Him as though He were a guilty sinner. Jesus was judged in our place. The wrath of God was poured out on Him. In the midst of this condemnation, He cried out, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?"

The sinless Son of God was judged as though He had committed all of the sins which have ever taken place throughout the entire history of mankind. He was judged in our place. Our sins were imputed or credited to Him. But this is not all.

2. The Imputation of Christ's Righteousness Toward Us.

Just as our sins were put to His account while He was on the cross, so in the same way, the righteousness of Christ is put to our account when we believe in Him.

We are credited with the righteousness of Christ. We are reckoned to be righteous. On this basis, we are justified - declared to be righteous. And for all eternity, God will treat us as though we were as righteous as Jesus Christ.

Now, this does not mean that I actually BECOME righteous when I believe in Christ. If that were true, then no believer would ever sin and this just is not the case. Rather, I am legally credited with the righteousness of Christ so that I can be legally declared to be righteous.


What is the significance of this imputation of Christ's righteousness to our account? Is it merely another doctrine to be tucked into our spiritual notebooks and quietly forgotten? Or does it have some practical value on how I can live my life for today?

Here is the answer. If I have been declared by God to be righteous, then God is now free to bless me with every spiritual blessing. You see, God can never act in a way that is contrary to His own character. He could never say, "I know that man has sinned and is deserving of eternal condemnation, but I want to be a God of love and so I'm going to ignore man's sinful condition and give him eternal life anyway."

For God to accept sinful man as he is and to fellowship with him in this condition would be for God to accept and to fellowship with SIN. It would make God a sinner. It is for this reason that God formed a plan which would save man and at the same time would satisfy the righteousness of God.


But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested. (Romans 3:21a).
With these words, Paul introduces the doctrine of justification by faith. Rather than being contrary to God's righteous character, the doctrine of justification actually emphasizes the righteousness of God. This principle is seen most vividly when we examine the necessity of an imputation of righteousness.

1. God is infinite. He is without beginning or end, both in the realm of time and space as well as in the perfection of His holy character.

2. God's righteousness is infinite. Just as all of the other attributes of God are infinite, so also is His righteousness infinite. This means that we cannot think of His grace as overpowering His righteousness. All of His attributes are equally infinity.

3. Anything less than God's righteousness is separated from that righteousness by an infinite gulf. This is the very nature of anything that is infinite. It is always infinitely apart from the non-infinite. There can be no such thing as that which is "almost infinite."

4. Therefore, the righteousness that God demands must always be an infinite righteousness, since anything less is not true righteousness by His standards.

We have a tendency to look at one another in terms of different levels of relative righteousness. To say, "I'm not as bad as he is," doesn't mean that we are righteous in God's eyes. To the contrary, God says that "all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment" (Isaiah 64:6).

5. Sin is contrary to God's righteousness. This is obvious when we consider what sin is. The Westminster Confession defines sin as "any want of conformity unto or transgression of the Law of God." Sin in the Biblical sense can only be defined as that which is in violation of God's ultimate standard - His own righteousness.

Paul made this very clear when he pronounced that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). By this definition, sin involves falling short of the glory of God. It is transgressing God's perfect standard of holiness.

6. Therefore, sin is infinite in demerit. There is an infinite gulf fixed between the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of men.

Man's relative righteousness could never bridge that gulf, for even a single sin would be enough to establish it forever (and we have committed a lot more than a single sin).

But that is not all. Because sin is infinite in demerit, it demands an infinite punishment against the sinner. This is why I believe that Hell will be eternal. A man could not be sent to Hell and then have his sentence completed after a certain number of years, now to be allowed into the presence of God. A single sin would be enough to condemn one for all time and eternity. It is not until you understand the awfulness of sin and its consequences that you can begin to appreciate the magnificent gift of God.

7. The righteousness that God credits to the believer's account is an infinite righteousness. We have been credited with the righteousness of Christ. He is infinitely righteous. He has not merely imputed a portion of His righteousness to our account. Rather, the very nature of His character of complete righteousness has been credited to us. We are regarded by God as having the very righteousness of Christ.

We can sum this concept up in three short sentences:


Since there has traditionally been some considerable confusion between justification, regeneration and sanctification, this chart might help to clarify these three different aspects of our salvation.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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