The Order of Salvation: Justification

            Westminster divine, Anthony Burges, contended that “of all points of Divinity, there is none that with more profit and comfort we may labour in, then in that of Justification, which is stiled by some articulus stantis & cadentis ecclesiae, the Church stands or fals[sic], as the truth of this is asserted.”[1] The Biblical doctrine of Justification is indeed a foundational pillar within Christ’s church, a doctrine which, if misunderstood, could wreak havoc and certainly cause a church to fall.[2] In an earlier post I’ve examined the ways in which this doctrine has been misunderstood.[3] Where do we find this doctrine in Scripture? Well, as with all doctrines, but especially this one, we begin with God.[4]
            God, who is Good and Holy, hates sin. Indeed, if we’re to take Psalm 5:5 at face value, He also hates the sinner. This is hard news for sinners like us. And though many may quibble about the tone in which such news is communicated, that hard news is a necessary piece of information to know and believe before ever hearing the good news of the Gospel. “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Psalm 7:11) William Plumer comments here on the immutable righteousness of God that “because the wicked are always wicked and because God is always holy, therefore his relation to them is ever one of opposition, of threatening, of anger.”[5] How could it be any different? As God Himself puts it, “I will not justify the wicked” (Exodus 23:7). The question that inevitably arises is the question which Job asked his friends, “how can a [sinful] man be in the right before God” (Job 9:2)?
            As the Old Testament develops an interesting motif develops. The divine righteousness that must condemn me as a sinner is also the same divine righteousness I need for salvation. Hence, we can read in Psalm 31:1 where David asks of God, “Save me by your righteousness.” In other words, the righteousness of God is both judgmental, stemming from a heart of holy indignation (He must punish all sin and all sinners) but also salvific, stemming from a heart of mercy, grace, and love (He will yet save some of those sinners). In God’s simplicity then we see these twin truths: His righteousness is both a threat against sinners but at the same time the only hope for sinners.
            This perplexing conundrum comes to a wonderful convergence in the prophetic writing of Isaiah where we read that because of Israel’s sin, God has judged his people and sent them into exile on account of His righteousness. But at the same time God can promise that “salvation and righteousness may [still] bear fruit” (Is. 45:8) and that His “righteousness draws near, [His] salvation has gone out”(Is. 51:5). Indeed, “Only in the Lord... are righteousness and strength; In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory” (Is. 45:24-25). It’s clear that in Isaiah this justifying – which Isaiah understood as the salvific righteousness of God – is only accomplished in the coming Messiah. It is this Messiah – who is both from God and among men  – who will be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, and “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my Servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5, 11). Isaiah is clear, what the Messiah accomplishes, he accomplished because of and on account of those he represents.[6]
            It is this theology that Paul picks up in Romans, giving fuller expression to a doctrine of justification. It is worth quoting the key passage in full.

            “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine       forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26)

We see Paul in that last line take the conundrum of God being righteous and in his righteousness having to punish sinners but also in his righteousness able to save sinners; he is both just and the justifier. And for Paul, it’s clear - the key to making sense of that conundrum is the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, sin in justly punished and the sinner can be justified and saved.
            If we could be more precise – and we should always be precise - it is not just that Jesus Christ is the key to God being both just and the justifier; it is the life and active obedience of Jesus Christ who died as an atoning substitution for sinners and has been raised again to new life as a vindication, or justification, of his completed saving work.[7] That is, to fully understand justification one must also understand imputation, or as Isaiah puts it in Isaiah 53:11, “the righteous one, my servant, [will] make many to be accounted righteous.” What is Imputation? Imputation is the covenantal act of accounting, or crediting, one representative’s status to others. What does this look like Biblically?
            One of the clearest passages is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, that “for our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, Jesus was accounted as a sinner, even though in and of himself he was not – he literally never sinned, ever. But when the Father looked upon him, he looked upon him as if he did. All our sin was imputed to him. Hence, his death. Hence his substitutionary atoning death. God was punishing our guilt in and through His sinless Son. Why? Well, as Paul picks up this theology of imputation again in Romans 5, he tells us. “One act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18-19). As Adam represented humanity as a covenant head, so Christ will represent a renewed humanity as the New Covenant head.
            This helps us understand a very important aspect of justification, that in its essence it is properly a legal declaration and not an act of changing the individual. In other words, on the cross, Jesus, who had our sin imputed to him (2 Cor. 5:21), was not transformed into a sinner. No, when Paul says that God made him to be sin who knew no sin, he means that Jesus was accounted as (legally declared) a sinner.[8]
To use a philosophical term, ontologically Jesus was not a sinner. Ever. [9]
To use a theological term, Jesus was a scapegoat. Our sins were laid upon him.
            Hence, when we look at the verb “to justify” in both the Hebrew and the Greek we see a word that describes the action of a judge declaring a judgment (see Deut. 25:1; 1 Kings 8:32; Rom. 2:13; 1 Cor. 4:4). To justify then is to acquit. It is forensic, in the classical sense of the Latin forensis, meaning public – a public declaration that you, a sinner, are not guilty. Consider: the opposite of justification is condemnation. As Thomas Manton points out in his sermon on Romans 8:1 where Paul says that there is no condemnation for those who trust in Christ, “Paul does not say ‘there is no sin in us,’ but, ‘there is no condemnation.’”[10]
            That is wonderfully good news! As Paul preaches in Acts 13:38-39, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is justified from everything from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” In other words, the Law of Moses accurately announces what you are: sinful. But the grace of God in Jesus Christ – if you believe in Him – announces a greater pronouncement, a greater judgment: justified! And it is God who makes that pronouncement. It’s final.
            Here then is the glory of justification: On account of Jesus Christ and his righteousness, God declares a believer to be righteous. He is both forgiven of his sin as well as accounted as positively upright in the sight of the Lord. It is a doctrine which magnifies Jesus because it is entirely dependent upon Jesus. It is Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers. It is this truth which allows Paul to glory and marvel in doxological praise, writing “if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:31-34).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] Anthony Burgess, The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated (London: Thomas Underhill, 1651), preface; I found this quote in J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Crossway, 2014), p. 208.

[2] See Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Banner of Truth Trust, 2021), p. 226.

[4] John Owen writes that “A due consideration of him with whom in this matter we have to do, and that immediately, is necessary unto a right stating of our thoughts about [justification]... And if we manage our disputes about justification without a continual regard unto him by whom we must be cast or acquitted, we shall not rightly apprehend what our plea ought to be. Wherefore the greatness, the majesty, the holiness, and sovereign authority of God, are always to be present with us in a due sense of them, when we inquire how we may be justified before him.” Owen, On Justification found in Works, volume 5 (Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), p. 13.

[5] William S. Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks (Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), p. 113.

[6] “Isaiah is content to make the principle of substitution the centerpiece of his portrait of the Servant's work, and in Isaiah 53 we see... the essentials of the perfect substitute. Translators are strangely satisfied to tell us that the Servant of Yahweh was wounded 'for' [מִן] our transgression and bruised 'for' [מִן] our iniquities (53:5). The Hebrew preposition מִן is basically the preposition of cause and effect. Thus, "he was wounded because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities." There was a cause and there was an effect: on the one hand, our sins; on the other, his death-stroke, for here, as throughout Isaiah 53, the sufferings he endured refer not in a general way to the sorrows of life but to the infliction of death, so that we can speak pointedly and say that our sin caused his death. A possible - indeed preferable - rendering of 53:8 makes the same point in a very precise way: "he was cut down from the land of the living because of [מִן] the rebellion of my people to whom the blow belonged!" J. Alec Motyer, “Stricken for the Transgression of My People” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Crossway, 2013), p. 253.

[7] “In his treatise Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), Anselm argues for the intrinsic rationality of the atonement... Redemption is rooted in the satisfaction rendered to God for the dishonor done to God by human sinfulness. Anselm dispenses with the older notion that Christ came to pay a ransom to the devil, reasoning that God could never be under debt to anyone, including the devil. Rather, Christ pays the debt of honor that humans owe God. In this sense, the atonement is substitutionary.” Kelley James Clark, Richard Lints, James K. A. Smith, 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 3

[8] Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley rightly state that “In secular Greek literature, [the word] apparently never refers to changing someone’s moral character.” Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Spirit and Salvation, vol. 3 (Crossway, 2021), p.515.

[9] See Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology: Redemption in Christ, vol. 4 (Reformation Heritage Books, 2023), pp.616-618.

[10] Thomas Manton, “Sermons Upon Romans VIII: Sermon I” in Works, vol. 11 (Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), p. 387.


Stephen Unthank