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by John Weston on May 23, 2018

Justification in popular American culture today is almost portrayed as a vice. All of us try to justify our actions, even when we know we are veering off target or even when we are out-right sinning. Have you ever heard politically-motivated leaders say, “The ends justify the means?” Spooky! But for those of us adopted into God's family through the blood of Jesus Christ, the term “justification” has an entirely different sense, and one that is critical for understanding just how it is that we have faith that saves us.

When each of us experiences spiritual “justification,” we are each experiencing the forgiveness of God through faith in his Son who died for us all. John Wesley and the early Methodists understood this to be a core and pivotal doctrine of the Church universal. In his sermon, “Justification by Faith,” Wesley explains the biblical path to this necessary state of grace. His main (but by no means his only) scriptural reference for that message was Romans 4:5 “But people are declared righteous because of their faith, not because of their work.” (New Living Translation) What the NLT translates as “declared righteous” is “justified” in the King James Version which Wesley and most people used in that day. The basic flow is this (some of the wording is more Weston than Wesley):

  1. People Are Messed Up: People are made in the image of God, but ever since Adam & Eve's fall from grace, all of us are “children of wrath,” living in a fallen state requiring God's forgiveness and spiritual repair. The only solution to rescue humanity was for God's Son to die in our place, receiving the penalty of death and thereby satisfying God's perfect, righteous anger, or “wrath.”

  2. Justification Is Pardon; not ignoring or overlooking or choosing not act on what we have done wrong. Nothing has been swept under the rug or deferred to a sub-committee or expired because of a divine statute of limitations. God is the perfect judge and he knows all that each of us has done wrong. And he is legally justified to absolve us of the penalties by the substitution of his Son's death for each of ours.

  3. Justification Is for the Ungodly. But here is the catch: EVERYONE needs to be justified by Christ's sacrificial death. Compared to God's perfection ALL OF US are ungodly. Good deeds before you have faith? Nope. You might as well try to buy the moon. Good deeds after you have faith? They're great (and necessary) but they don't buy you the moon or your entry ticket into heaven—they simply express gratitude and confirm that God is working in your life.

  4. Justification Is by Faith. You can't produce God's forgiveness. You can't earn it (or the moon). You can't deserve it. That drives some people crazy. But it's the only way: heaven is for people who are humble and know they deserve hell, but instead are receiving forever love. You have to believe to be justified—it doesn't automatically accrue because you're sucking wind. No one is entitled to God's forgiveness.

Making sense? Justification is everything to do with God's Grand Scales of Justice tipping heavily out of our favor, and God finding a way to make it right. Justification is about God's forgiveness because of Jesus' death on the cross. The instant a person turns from sin and receives this forgiveness, something wonderful happens: the Holy Spirit comes into their heart and starts house cleaning, as well as adopting that person into God's family. This new process is called “sanctification,” but that is for another time.

Justification is critical for every Christian to understand. It puts everything in perspective, puts each of us in our place, and puts God in the highest place. Without it, heaven would be full of a bunch of seething, spoiled brats who can't get enough of ourselves. But that doesn't describe the residents of heaven, does it? More like hell.