Core Christian Beliefs - Blog

What Is Justification and How Does It Work?

Chelsea Kight


Imagine you are standing in a courtroom staring at a jury of 12 individuals. You are not the court reporter or a member of the audience. You are the defendant in a capital murder case. The crowd comes to a hush as the judge bangs his gavel.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” he asks.

“Yes, Your Honor,” says the foreman, standing.

He unveils a piece of paper and announces, “On the count of first-degree murder, we find the defendant guilty as charged.” The crowd murmurs as you are led away to prison, having been found guilty of your crime. Your sentence? Death.

Hopefully, you will never find yourself in such a situation. However, if we substitute a heavenly scene for this one, we are all in this predicament. You may not have murdered anyone, but we have all committed the crime against God that the Bible calls sin.

Usually when people think of the term “sin,” they think of a list of behaviors God would not want to see in a person’s life. Yes, these are sins. But sin, at its core, is a decision on the part of humanity to live outside of God’s design. Sin is choosing to go your own way and in some sense be your own god.

The story of Adam and Eve that opens the Bible illustrates this very clearly. Adam and Eve were the first human beings God created. They lived in perfect harmony with God until they were tempted to go their own way by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God placed that tree in the garden where they lived as a symbol of their need to trust His goodness and live according to his design. The consequence of choosing not to follow God was that sin entered the human experience, and death came too as the inevitable consequence of living outside of God’s design.

Everyone in human history, with the exception of Jesus, has sinned. If we were to be put on trial before God, we would all be found guilty. We are all guilty of the same core sin of rejecting God.

The opposite of sin is what the Bible calls righteousness. Righteousness is doing and being right — without sin. We lack righteousness if we live apart from God. To be justified, we have to obtain that righteousness from somewhere or from someone. Without it, the death penalty of eternal separation from God awaits us.

You may think even your worst thoughts and actions do not deserve a punishment so severe. Does this mean God is a harsh judge? No, it means His standards are far higher than ours, as you would expect from a God who is holy — that is, pure and untainted; perfect and worthy of perfection.

Receiving the death sentence for a crime will sound to many people like a nightmare. Being found guilty before God is even more terrifying.

But God, in His grace, has made a way for people to be free of the penalty of sin. This comes through what is called “justification.”

What Is Justification?


Justification is a legal declaration from God that you are innocent of sin. Instead, you are made right before Him. God the judge grants you freedom instead of a death sentence — even though your actions deserve that death sentence. But there is a condition to this freedom that we must explore.

This idea of being made free of sin and standing blamelessly before God is comforting and hopeful. The definition of justification is the best place to start, but learning how justification takes place is where we find the greatest hope.

The good news is it’s not about working off your debt to God.

How Does Justification Work?


Justification comes from God. It is an amazing blessing available to all people. The Bible shows us very clearly how anyone can be justified by God Himself.

How Does One Become Justified?

You can become justified by believing in Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you trust in Him, you will receive His righteousness. Jesus will cover your sin with His righteousness. All your impurity will be made perfect through Christ because He lived a sinless, blameless life.

The Bible describes this as though God clothes us with His own perfection, hiding our imperfection so we can live in harmony with Him once more.

I delight greatly in the LORD;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of His righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61:10, New International Version)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:14, NIV)

When Jesus died, He died for the sin of every person. God knew we could not pay the penalty for our sin. No amount of effort on our part would ever clear the debt we owed to God. So Jesus paid that debt Himself. But it’s crucial to understand that He did not just cancel the debt. He actually paid it.

God allowed Jesus to die the death we deserve, clearing the debt owed to Him. God paid the ultimate price by allowing His only Son to die in our place. Jesus satisfies the requirements of His Holy law.

So now, when people put their faith in God and make Him the Lord of their lives, they are given justification, or freedom from the guilt of sin. We walk free because Jesus took the death penalty for us.

This is the message that Christians refer to as the gospel, or “good news.” Find out more about the gospel.

Paul wrote many of the books in the New Testament, which is the part of the Bible written after Jesus’ ministry. In the book of Romans, Paul writes about justification. He says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-23, NIV).

It’s because of Jesus’ death on the cross that God has wiped clean the penalty of sin. Instead, God has given righteousness to those who trust in Christ, known as Christians. So in this sense, Christians are simply people willing to accept this gift from Him rather than continue trying to make themselves righteous by their own efforts to be moral.

Jesus, the only perfect human in history, did for all humanity what no one else could do. He took our guilt and instead gave us freedom.

Paul writes in Galatians 2:16, “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (NIV).

Paul makes it clear: You will not be justified by any work or anything you can do to make yourself better. No one is capable of being good enough to gain justification on their own. But you can be completely justified when Jesus takes your sin and sin penalty away from you, granting us His righteousness instead. 

Is Being Unjustified the Default?

For the Christian, justification is the default. If you are a Christian, you cannot lose your justification. It will always be your status, from the moment you put your faith in Christ.

But being unjustified is the default for someone who is not yet a Christian. If you are not a Christian, then you are not in a relationship with God through Jesus. Without that relationship, you cannot be justified.

Paul writes in the book of Ephesians,

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:1-6, NIV)

This passage from the Bible highlights the reality of someone who is unjustified and someone who is justified. The unjustified person is separated from God and therefore spiritually dead. The justified person is made alive through the saving work of Christ.

This is why you might have heard Christians talk about being “born again.” You begin a new life when you trust in Jesus.

What are the Effects of Being Justified?


Knowing you are justified will help you see yourself the way God sees you: blameless and perfect. Obviously, no one is perfect in fact, but God does not look at His people who trust Him and see all their sin. Instead, He sees them in the same way He sees Jesus because Jesus has covered their sin with His righteousness.

If you are a Christian constantly feeling ashamed about sinful habits in your life, it might be because you are not seeing yourself as God now sees you. You might still think you deserve His judgment after He’s allowed you to walk free.

Remembering that you are justified is a great way to retrain your mind to see yourself the way God does.

Here are some effects of justification:

  • Justification gives you peace with God.
    “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1, NIV).

  • Justification produces righteousness, and righteousness allows you to flourish with God’s people. But even as He’s building righteous behavior in you, the fact that He treats us as though you’re righteous now means that you can be in His presence, which will bring joy and flourishing on its own.
    “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green” (Psalm 92:12-14, NIV). 

How Can You Tell If You Are Justified?


Once a person is justified, that justification cannot be taken away. But how do you know that you are justified? What is your source of assurance?

The Bible points to change in the life of a believer as evidence that faith is genuine. If you truly have faith in Christ, then your life will change accordingly. You’ll begin reflecting Jesus’ character more and more.

If you claim to have faith but do not show it, your life will not look more Christlike. You will not be who you are meant to be: a Christ-reflector in the world.

Justification is not based on your behavior, though; rather, your behavior serves as a sign to you and others of your new life in Christ.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-16, NIV)

If you have authentic faith, it will pour out of you naturally because God will have truly changed your heart and mind. You will not live a perfect life, though, because you will still be in a process of becoming like Jesus day by day.

Your thoughts and behavior will still be catching up to your spiritual position before God. But your desire will be to honor God and thank Him by learning to think and act more like His Son, Jesus.

A heart that God is changing is a heart that is learning to love God and love people. Jesus could not have made it more clear when He said, ‘‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39, NIV).

Do you have a heart that loves God and wants to live according to His design? Do you strive to treat others with kindness and compassion? As you trust in God’s Holy Spirit to transform you, your life will demonstrate that you have been justified by God.

This process in your life is called “sanctification.”

Find out more about the Holy Spirit and how you can experience the presence of God in your life.

Justification Versus Sanctification


You may have heard the word “sanctification” and wondered how it relates to justification. These concepts often go hand in hand, but they have different meanings.

Justification occurs immediately when someone enters into a relationship with God. Sanctification is a lifelong journey of becoming holy and therefore more like Jesus.

Have you ever watched someone move through the processes of becoming a Christian and growing into a mature follower of Christ? The growth of their faith is an example of sanctification. You will know you are being sanctified when you see the Holy Spirit at work in you, changing your thought patterns, habits and actions.

These two Bible verses describe sanctification for us:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NIV)

The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Galatians 5:22-23, New Living Translation)

Christ made justification possible for us by what He did in His death and resurrection. His resurrection was the ultimate sign that the penalty for sin, which was death, had been paid once and for all. Jesus promising His followers the presence of the Holy Spirit within them — His very own presence — made sanctification possible.

So think of it like this: Justification is about your status before God — the verdict of not guilty. Sanctification is about the process of transformation that happens within you once you accept that only God can give you that justified status and that you cannot achieve it yourself.

You need to understand the difference between justification and sanctification or you run the risk of thinking that living life as a Christian is somehow going to help you achieve a better status before God. You might try to do what He has already done for you through Jesus.

Justification and sanctification are aspects of the gospel that will change your life forever. 

Are You Justified?


Justification shows us how much God loves all people. It is hope for anyone willing to accept it.

Are you justified? Are you now innocent of your guilt before God? If you have trusted in Jesus as your Savior, the answer is a resounding yes.

If you are not sure, it’s worth taking the time to explore again what it means to know God personally.

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