A Personal Doctrine
Justification is not just a doctrinal or church doctrine. It is a deeply personal doctrine. Every time I sin, I create a reason to doubt my acceptance by God and I question my future with God. But day after day, the doctrine of justification speaks peace to my soul.
This is especially true of imputed righteousness.
Catholicism says that righteousness is imparted to us or infused into us, primarily through the sacraments. This righteousness is the potential to live a righteous life that pleases God. With God’s help mediated through the church, we may be accepted by God. We are justified by faith, but it is faith plus human effort.
In contrast, the Reformers spoke of imputed righteousness. Luther said saving righteousness is external or alien. In other words, it’s not our righteousness; it’s not something we achieve. Instead, Christ’s righteousness is given to us from outside of us. Melanchthon, Luther’s sidekick, developed this into the idea of "imputation," The righteousness of Christ is "imputed" to us—it is reckoned as ours by God—because we are united to Christ by faith. Justification, then, is not about God making us righteous, but declaring us righteous. It is the language of the law court rather than the hospital. Justification is not a process of healing, but a declaration that we have a right, positive standing before God.
Justification is not a process of healing, but a declaration that we have a right, positive standing before God.
Christ Gives Us All That Is His
One of Luther’s favourite images for this was that of marriage. He told the gospel as the story of the "rich and divine bridegroom Christ" who "marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness." At the wedding, a wonderful exchange takes place whereby the king takes all the shame and debt of his bride and the harlot receives all the wealth and royal status of her bridegroom:
"Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?"
Assurance Day after Day
If justification describes a process of change as Catholicism teaches, albeit one initiated by grace, then every setback in my walk with God throws my future into doubt. But if I am made right with God through the finished work of Christ then nothing can unfinish that reality. I can have assurance, even in the face of my sin.
Paul brings his argument for justification by faith in Romans 1–4 to a climax in 4:25: "[Jesus our Lord] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification." What does he say next? What is the consequence of our justification? Paul continues: "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God" (5:1-2). Justification is the reminder that we have peace with God and the hope of glory. And we need that reminder not just on the day of our conversion, but day after day.