Justification in its essence is a legal or forensic term, a term that belongs to the realm of the Law Court. It means “to declare just,” and “to declare righteous.” It is the opposite of condemnation. The Christian has moved from a state of “condemnation” to one of “justification.” For this reason the Apostle starts this 8th chapter by saying, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is taking up again the argument he had left off at the end of chapter 5, where he had been working out some of the consequences of justification. His constant emphasis concerning this is that it is something which is done by God, “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified.” In other words we do not justify ourselves before God. God justifies us, and He does it–and this is the argument of the first four chapters–entirely apart from us and our works. It is not the result of any merit that is in us. One verse that states this clearly and beyond any doubt is the 5th verse in the 4th chapter: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” God justifies the “ungodly”; not the “righteous,” but the “ungodly.”
He argues the same point in chapter 5, verses 6-8: “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is the action of God, and exclusively the action of God. This is the central argument of this Epistle. It is the declaration made by God concerning those who believe in Christ. We are justified in Christ, but through faith and belief. The belief is the instrument.
Let us emphasize again certain other aspects of this doctrine. Justification does not merely mean forgiveness. It includes forgiveness, but it is much bigger than forgiveness. It means in addition that God declares us to be entirely guiltless; He regards us as if we had never sinned at all. He pronounces us to be just and to be righteous. In doing so He is answering any declaration that the Law may make with respect to us. It is the judge upon the bench not merely saying that the prisoner at the Bar is forgiven, but that he pronounces him to be a just and righteous person.
In justifying us God tells us that He has taken our sins and our guilt, and has “imputed” them to, “put them to the account of,” the Lord Jesus Christ and punished them in Him. He announces also that, having done that, He now puts to our account, or “imputes” to us, the perfect righteousness of His own dear Son. The Lord Jesus Christ obeyed the Law perfectly; He never broke it in any respect. He gave a full and a perfect satisfaction to all its demands. That full obedience constitutes His righteousness. What God does is to put to our account, to put upon us, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In declaring us to be justified, God proclaims that He now looks on us, not as we are, but as clothed with the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. A hymn by the Moravian Count Zinzendorf, and translated by John Wesley, expresses it thus:
Jesus, Thy robe of righteousness
My beauty is, my glorious dress;
‘Midst flaming worlds, in this arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Zinzendorf proceeds in the hymn to defy anyone and anything to bring a charge against us, because we are clothed and robed with this “righteousness” of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such, then, is the meaning of justification, and it is entirely the action of God. It is, I repeat, the forensic, legal declaration of God that we are not only forgiven but guiltless, and that as we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ we shall continue in that condition. In other words, we are given a new standing and a new status in the presence of God.
– D. M. Lloyd-Jones