Romans 3:20
A study of Christian doctrine must involve a study of words. The meaning given to these words will make the
difference between truth and error. There are several key words in the Roman letter that you must understand
if you are to comprehend the good news that is set forth in the letter. One such word is "justify" and its related
forms. This is truly a letter about "justification". Yet unless you have made a careful study of the word, you
cannot appreciate the wonderful truth that is found in this word.

Something of the importance of the word in understanding this letter will be seen when you just mark the
different times some form of the word occurs in the letter. Some form of the verb occurs thirteen times in the
first eight chapters of the letter. Some form of the noun related to the verb occurs three times in the same
chapters. For Paul this word is loaded with a concept of God's saving act in Christ Jesus. God has justified
sinners. But when you say you have been justified, what do you mean? If you will think with me carefully today,
we will seek to clarify together our thoughts and understanding of this word.

This is the most important thing to be said about the word. It relates to a forensic act by a judge. The word is
borrowed by the Apostle from the legal profession. The root idea in the word used by Paul in Romans is "to
declare, or pronounce one to be right or just with the consequence that this one is treated as just." Basically
then it is a legal act of declaration. By the words spoken a guilty person is declared to be guilt¬less and is to be
treated as guiltless.

The declarative nature of the word is important. Some have understood the word to mean "to make righteous".
They have refused to see any difference between "making" one righteous and "declaring" one righteous. But
there is a world of difference. God does make men righteous, but in Scripture this is called sanctification. The
subjects of such sanctifying work are those who have been justified. But these two must never be confused.
God justifies sinners and then sanctifies the justified.

There is a negative and a positive side to this legal act. The negative side in¬volves declaring one guiltless
who has been accused, or to acquit one who has been con-demned. This means that it is the removal of the
charge, the dealing with the condemna-tion successfully. The positive side is that the one justified is viewed as
being accept-able again. He is given a true position of acceptance and standing.
This means that justification is not so much something that is done "to" man as it is something that is done "for"
man. When God justifies a man, He does not so much change the nature of man as change the legal standing
of a man. It is the act whereby his legal status is changed from guilty and condemned, to free and acquitted.
This act is performed by the only one who would have the authority to do it, the Holy Judge of all the earth.

In our letter from Paul God is always the subject of the justifying and man is the object. This is an important
thing to emphasize about the word. The very nature of the act makes it necessary that someone do it for the
guilty sinner. It is not something that he can do for himself.

Maybe it will help us if we get the setting and the background of the act of justi¬fication. Paul's use of the word
is against the background of an important assumption. He is assuming the Biblical doctrine of final judgment
and that God is to be the judge in this final judgment. It is the conviction of Paul that in the purpose of God a
special day of divine reckoning has already been set. On that awful day, each man will stand before God to be
judged according to his deeds. The principles he has already outlined in the second chapter of the epistle will
be applied judiciously to each case by God. On the basis of these principles sinful man can expect nothing but
condemnation and eternal separation from God on that day.

But God has done something for some men who are headed for that awful encounter. He has justified them. It
means that as a judicial act, in preparation for the Day of Judgment, God has canceled out all of the
obligations created by the sin of the accused. He has declared them to be righteous before Him. This means
that they will be treated when they stand before Him as men who are righteous, as men who have done what
they should have done, as men who have met the divine requirements. Instead of a record covered with a list
of transgressions, the heavenly books will show only a record of right doing. According to the records, they will
have a clean and positive record. Indeed, there will actually be recorded on their moral account in the
heavens, the very righteousness of God Him¬self. They will have recorded on their behalf all of the privileges
that go with having the righteousness of the Lord Jesus. This will include full and free acceptance in the
presence of God.

Who can make such a judicial act? Only the God who is the Judge of all men! Paul will later write in this same
epistle, "Who is he that condemneth, It is God that justi¬fieth!" On what basis is this act of justification made by
God? This is a question that Paul will answer for us in the epistle. Simply stated the answer is that God justifies
sinners on the basis of the completed work of Christ upon the Cross and in the empty tomb. The death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ made it possible for God to be absolute¬ly consistent with His own nature of justice
and to justify guilty sinners. So justifi¬cation is supremely a divine act.

When you ask a modern Christian, "Have you been saved?” he will probably answer you without really
understanding all that has been asked. He is likely to tell you of some emotional experience that he had. That
emotional experience may or may not have been from God. There is an experiential side to salvation, but it is
not the prominent side in Scriptures. The Scriptures do not emphasize so much what man experiences as what
God does on man's behalf. Justification is the saving act of God in the behalf of man, but it is not an
experience on the part of man. While it is true that God does impart spiritual life to man in the experience of the
New Birth, God does this only after the sin account of man has been settled in heaven through the divine act of
justification. This is God's first act in the grand program of salvation.

The Biblical doctrine of eternal security is supported by this word. It is the saving act of God in man's behalf
which is once and for all. God never justifies man but once. When He justifies a man, his heavenly standing is
assured forever. Does this mean that once a man is justified, he can go forth to live as he pleases? No! It
means once it dawns upon the grateful soul of a justified sinner what God has done on his behalf through
Christ, he will be pleased to go forth and do what pleases Christ.

From the ministry of our Lord we have a beautiful and helpful illustration of how this word is used in the Bible
and what it means. The word was used by Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee
was a typical religious man of his day. He was seeking to be just before God by doing religious deeds  by the
works of the law. He would not admit that by the works of the law no flesh could be justified before God. He
went to the temple and said his prayer. His prayer got a good bit of notice in the temple on earth, but none in
the heavenly temple. If that man had died while praying in the temple, he would have gone to Hell from a prayer

But Jesus told of the other man. He was a Publican by profession. As a Publican he was the renegade tax
collector for the Roman Empire. It was a profession that was marked by corruption and injustice. This man
probably had been enriching himself from unjust gain. Yet to his credit, this man went to the temple with a deep
sense of his guilt before God. His sense of guilt was so great that he felt unworthy to be seen near the front of
the temple. Instead of getting into a conspicuous place like the Pharisee, he stood in the back hoping no one
would notice his presence. The weight on his spirit was so great, that he dared not even lift his eyes toward
heaven like the Pharisee did when he prayed. His heart was so empty that in desperation he beat upon his
breast. His life was one corrupt and soiled mess! But then he turned his heart toward God with a simple, but
sincere prayer. "God, be merciful to me the sinner." Though our English version does not bring it out, the man
actually identified himself as the chief of sinners. He acknowledged himself to be the sinner and God to be a
God of mercy.

What happened? Jesus says that this man went home justified rather than the other. This means that God
declared him to be righteous, bestowed upon him the needed right-eousness as a gift, and made him on the
basis of this to be acceptable in his sight. He still had not done anything religious. He still  had not had
opportunity to change his life style to that of justice. All that the man had done was humble himself in the
presence of holy God. God had done that which He could not do. God declared him to be righteous. God gave
him the needed righteousness as a gift. This was God's saving and legal act toward him.

Have you been justified? If so, all is well. Those God justifies, he will also glorify. But before God can ever
glorify a man, he must first justify him. Why not humble yourself before Him in genuine repentance, and turn to
him in trusting dependence? God will justify you! You can receive justification from God as a gracious gift this
very day. Your whole status can be changed before the Judge of the universe forever. It only a prayer of
repentance and faith away.