The Apostle Paul uses the Greek verb for “justified” 27 times, mostly in his letter to the Romans and Galatians. It can be understood as a legal declaration, “not guilty,” or in the easily memorable phrase, “just as if I’d never sinned.”
Paul makes clear, confirming the earlier declaration of the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, that there is “no one righteous” (Romans 3:10) and “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). He later states that “wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Our eternal life is given by God, not because of any ability to earn God’s favor through sinless perfection or even an extraordinary exemplary life in keeping the law of Moses. The forgiveness of God is a gift, not earned, because of the sinless life of Jesus sacrificed as our penal substitute on the cross.
As C.S. Lewis reminds us in his classic book, Mere Christianity, not only do we “fall short” of the moral standards God has set out for us, the glory that was to be humanity’s before the spoilage of Eden, we also “fall short” of our own moral standards by which we judge the words, attitudes, and actions of others. Hints of our own moral standards are found in our complaints about others, and if pressed, most of us should be able to quickly admit that we have done the same things that we condemn others for doing. See how the Apostle Paul comments on this in Romans 2:1-3.
We are “justified” before God in Christ Jesus because of His sacrifice.
The term “justified” can also be thought of as a positional term, something like everyone’s last name, signaling a “belonging” to a particular family. Babies in the family don’t necessarily contribute anything, work or responsibilities, to the family table, except some cuteness and cuddles, and a lot of extra work for everyone else. They belong because they belong. But, the baby, over the years, learns how to be a contributing, faithful member of the family system. The term “justified” is somewhat similar. As “babies in Christ,” the first months as a member of God’s family, the major emphasis is belonging to the family because of our being divinely chosen through faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus. The baby in the family doesn’t belong because of their moral perfection and holiness.
Pushing the image further, even as the baby in the family becomes a toddler, an adolescent, and young adult, their family belonging isn’t rooted in their sinless perfection or their ability to maintain all the family rules that contribute to family trust and stability. Lies are told, curfews are ignored. Teenaged disrespect of parental authority is even stereotypically expected. However, in the process toward adult wisdom and more fully-faithful family living, the daughter or son remains a member of the family.
Think of “justification by faith,” as British theologian, John Peck, has asserted, as a central characteristic of our moral life and all the associated roles in general. Anyone chosen for a job can’t boldly say, especially in the beginning stages, that they are better at performing perfectly than anyone in the world! Mistakes are made, second-guessing is sometimes standard. But they were chosen, they belong, and it’s “just-as-if” they’d never messed up.
Or think of your best friendship. Your sense of belonging is not associated with your ability to be relationally, conversationally perfect. It’s not that you were demonstrating your profound competence as a friend and rising above every other potential candidate on the planet that earned your friendship. Your friend chose you and you chose your friend, despite road bumps, conversational and appointment miscues. Despite your lack of perfection.
Imagine the ill-health of a marriage if a wife or husband asserted that their being chosen by their partner and marital bliss was in any way associated with an ability to be perfect. Or their being better than every other human candidate. There would inevitably be a lot of internal and probably external boasting (see Ephesians 2:8, 9).
However, as it relates to our being reconciled to God, belonging to His family, and being assigned with work in His household, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary was the necessary provision of belonging, of receiving the gift of justification.
Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. He has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.