Lately I’ve been hearing preachers declare the good news of justification – a word central to the Christian Gospel. They frequently use the catchy word-play that justified means “just-as-if-I’d never sinned”. It seems like a clever phrase, and something that we as Christians can celebrate. But it’s not really that clever, because justification is so much more than this.
The main flaw with this definition is that it’s incomplete. Justification should never be reduced to merely the removal of sin. It’s not a negative – sin being dealt with – it’s a positive: I have moved into a right relationship with God. Let’s explore a legal metaphor first. Recently there has been a court battle going on where a person was accused of a significant crime. Despite evidence being brought, the accused protested their innocence. However, the court passed sentence – a guilty verdict – and jail time began. Some time later, another hearing was arranged and a pardon was granted, the jail time ceased. Although the accused was convicted of the crime, they were released from having to serve the penalty or punishment for that crime. But that wasn’t good enough. What did the person say? “I want to be vindicated. I want to be declared righteous – not just pardoned, but my name cleared”. And it happened. The whole sentence was revoked and the person compensated. The miracle of justification is that we’re taken from the position of being a sinner to not simply being free, but declared righteous! We share in the status and relationship of Jesus Christ himself. So, justification is not merely “just as if I’d never sinned” but it’s much, much more. I don’t just get to not go to Hell… but I actually get admitted into Heaven!
Try an economic metaphor. As sinners, we are bankrupt. Jesus comes along and pays the debt we could never, ever pay. When someone does that economically, what happens to your finances? You go from being in the red, to being back on zero. That would be our “just as if I’d never sinned” scenario. But, Jesus doesn’t end there. He doesn’t rescue us from sin and leave us in a neutral position; Jesus brings us from a negative relationship with God all the way into a positive one by giving his righteousness to us. In economic terms, he gives us his credit; we go from being in debt to being billionaires!
The problem with the definition “just as if I’d never sinned” is that “as if” seems to imply some sort of a legal fiction. But this isn’t the case. The fact is that through Christ I am right with God… not “just as if”; it really is the case. I am right with God because Christ is right with God. To be justified is to be declared righteous before God and the word “righteous” means “in right relationship” with God. This is a very positive thing. It’s not “just as if I’d never sinned” – it’s a declaration of positive righteousness. I am right with God. Justification is the Christian teaching that God gives His gift of approval to us.