One of the biblical themes that I never get tired of preaching and teaching is justification. Every time I’m faced with teaching it, I know that I’m going to be personally encouraged again with the riches of the gospel. I have no trouble at all getting pumped about justification. It’s just so amazing what God gives to sinners like me. This kind of theology always brings me to doxology.
Yet, sadly, I find that there are Christians for whom this just doesn’t float their boat. It doesn’t impress them. It doesn’t leave them in awe and wishing they could love God more than they already do. There are various reasons for that. In some cases, perhaps it’s because they’re not really Christians — after all, unregenerate hearts don’t get excited about the gospel. In other cases, perhaps it’s because they haven’t been taught justification very well. In the latter scenario, it’s more a matter of ignorance. Believers are robbed of joy and God is robbed of glory because these believers have been somewhat short-changed in how they’ve been taught.
I want to put my finger today on one particular point where I’ve periodically found a lapse in how justification is taught in Reformed churches. I’m doing this for the sake of joy. I’m doing this to help brothers and sisters exult with me in the treasures we have in Christ. I’m doing this so that we’ll all be more impressed with God and the gospel.
Justification is always described in courtroom terms. There is a judge (God), and there are the accused (us). We’re accused of sinning against God’s laws, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil. We’re faced with an eternal death sentence from the Judge. Into this picture steps Jesus Christ. He is our advocate, our Mediator. He intercedes for us with his work on our behalf. There’s a verdict from the judge. Now this is where things sometimes go off the track and we might miss something of how the rich the gospel truly is. Some say that the judge’s verdict is “innocent.” Because of what Christ has done, we are declared innocent, they say.
Part of the trouble may stem from the illustration. We’re imagining a courtroom. Our experience with courtrooms is limited to this earth. Whether in person or on the screen, we know that generally judges issue two types of verdicts: guilty or innocent. You are either found guilty and punished or you are acquitted and go free. Since we’re using this illustration of the courtroom, it’s natural to go with the positive outcome and describe it as a verdict of “innocent.”
We’re not entirely wrong in doing that. In justification, God does forgive us all our sins because of Christ’s work on the cross. You can say that he wipes our slates clean. Our accounts are cleared of all our wrong-doing. As a consequence, we are indeed innocent, acquitted. That in itself is something quite amazing.
A non-Reformed writer once portrayed justification simply and only in these terms. He compared it to a game of golf. In golf, if you’re in a tournament or something like that, you can get these do-overs called “mulligans.” This writer said that God wipes our score-card clean of all our mistakes, and now we get a mulligan. We get to try again. How is that good news?
There is a better way to understand all this, but it begins with going back to God’s demands. God justly demands that all our sins be addressed through his infinite wrath. Christ met that demand of God’s justice by being our substitute on the cross. However, God also demands perfect obedience going forward. He does not relax that just demand of a perfect life because we’re forgiven. This is where a good gospel gets even better: we have Christ’s perfect obedience throughout his life to meet that demand. Romans 5:18-19 teaches us that Christ’s obedience is a key element of our righteousness before God. That obedience is credited to us, it’s put on our accounts. Therefore, in the sight of the Judge, it is as if we ourselves had always been and always will be perfect obedient.
Consequently, the verdict that’s issued is not merely “innocent” or “acquitted.” It’s something far better: righteous! It’s a verdict that you won’t find in an earthly courtroom. But in the heavenly courtroom, God declares sinners to be righteous — not only forgiven, but also seen in Christ as perfectly obedient. Sinners are seen as Christ is seen. This is to be seen in the very Greek word for justification: dikaioo. That word and its relatives all pertain to “righteousness,” which is, by definition, a far richer word than innocence.
Because God’s courtroom is so much more amazing than any earthly courtroom, what the Judge does after the verdict is even more amazing. Since he sees the sinner as he sees his Son, he takes that sinner and brings him or her into his family. The Judge takes the sinner out of the courtroom and into the family room. He says, “You are my child and I am your Father.” That can happen because justification is more than being found innocent or acquitted.
That’s why I find justification so incredibly encouraging. Not only am I innocent before God, I am positively righteous in his eyes. This is something that cannot be undone. I have everything I need to stand before him, both in this life and in the age to come. It all comes to me through my Saviour Jesus Christ, through his substitution. I am God’s righteous child through a life I did not live and through a death I did not die. Wow! Can I love him just a little bit more?