[B30] The Apostles' Creed: Justification

Justification is not the infusing of a new nature into man. It is a judicial declaration on God’s part concerning man’s relationship to Him. But it is more than a mere declaration. It is an act of God which changes man’s whole relationship to Him. In this act of God there is a complete removal of all the guilt of man’s sin, the perfect righteousness of Christ is given to the pardoned one, and he is received into full sonship and heirship.

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30. Justification

There is no difference, for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. … Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. — Rom. 3:23—25, 28.

The Scriptures teach, and in the explanation to the Third Article we confess, that man can do nothing toward bringing about his salvation, or keeping it when brought to him. He is not only dead in sin, as to spiritual things he is worse than a black or stone, for there is in the natural man aversion for spiritual things and opposition to them. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can be know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Faith, the organ, or spiritual hand, through which all spiritual gifts of God are received and retained, must be given to man. This new life, this new vision and grasp of things spiritual, as to its inception and culture, is the result of the operation on man’s spirit of God the Holy Spirit. This change in man’s condition is called regeneration because it marks the actual begetting of a new spiritual life; it is called conversion because the one in whom this life is begotten is turned from darkness to life, from sin to righteousness, from the world and self and Satan to God.

The fact of conversion, as to its essential nature, is always the same, — the begetting of a new life; the efficient agent in the begetting of this new life is always the same, — God the Holy Spirit; the instrumental means, so far as we know, are now always the same, — God’s Word and the holy sacraments. The experiences, however, of those in whom this new life is begotten are not always the same. Some are begotten as falls the dew of heaven, gently and quietly; some come into this newness of life through greater or less convulsions of their nature. A few there are who quickly come into considerable clearness of vision, and get a fairly firm grasp of the fundamental eternal verities; many there are who, for years, dwell in the twilight zone of half-vision, and troublesome fears.

For all, especially for those harassed by doubts and fears, God has given us a very precious doctrine in His Gospel. And we consider this the logical point for its presentation. In the process of man’s spiritual development there comes a time when God steps in to perform an act which always changes the whole relationship between man and Himself. This act is not mentioned in the Creed, nor yet, specifically, in the terse explanation of Luther; but it is implied in both. This act of God the Scriptures, and our Confessions, drawn therefrom, call justification. This doctrine is the source of the greatest comfort and strength to all those who rightly understand it. Today we are going to treat of this precious biblical doctrine of Justification.

Before we proceed, I want to call your attention to the definition of justification as given in our Catechism. I trust you all still remember it, if not do not let the sun go down today without hunting up your old catechism and recommitting it so it will never be forgotten. Here it is, “Justification is that act of God, by which, He of pure grace, for the sake of the merits of Christ, pronounces a poor sinner, who truly believes in Christ, free from guilt and declares him just.”

1. The Subjects

In the light of our text, and this definition, let us consider, first of all, the subjects of this act of God.

Those on whom the act of justification is wrought are sinners. But it is not the mere fact of being a sinner that brings justification, for then would all be justified. Only those are justified who are poor sinners; who recognize their sinfulness, lament their ruined condition, and in faith flee to the refuge set before them in Jesus Christ.

The first thing the Holy Spirit has to do in man’s life, if he is to become a justified child of God, is to convince him of his sinful condition, and the sentence of condemnation which rests on him in consequence. This is not an easy thing to do. Man is by nature proud, self-sufficient; not humble. Man wants to stand acquitted, justified; but on the ground of his own supposed innocence, and good works, as was the case with the pharisee in the Gospel story.

Let us look for a moment at our text. It is but one of many similar ones. But we will pin our attention to this one that it may become fixed in our minds. Remember, it is God who is speaking through his Apostle. His words cut, but He wounds only that He may heal, He humbles only that He may be able to exalt. Now what does God say? “There is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” David as well as bloody Ahab, Paul the Apostle as well as Saul the persecutor, Simeon as well as the thief on the cross, Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena as well as Sir George Jeffreys, you and I as well as the criminal languishing for foul crimes in the cell under sentence of condemnation; by nature all are sinners, deserving the wrath of God, and under sentence of His condemnation. A man may be born an aristocrat of the aristocrats, heir of the wealth of a Croesus, reared in the atmosphere of utmost culture, a lover of the beautiful in literature and art, loathing everything coarse and cruel; and yet it is writing, at God’s dictation: “There is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

Not all are murderers, or thieves, or adulterers in the gross, vulgar sense of the word; but in thought and affection we have all offended even here. And this is sin. There is a difference as to the character and degree of sin. Some are gross offenders, some less gross. Some owe fifty pieces, some eighty, some a hundred; but all have offended, for there is no difference as to the fundamental fact of sinfulness. If there is only cold indifference toward God, only a lack of love for Him, and trust in Him it is enough. This, too, is sin; and sin of crimson hue. And if we had only once in life offended, that would be enough, that one offense would break the golden chain of God’s holy law, and make us guilty of all. There is no difference; for all have sinned. This is God’s declaration.

There may be room for discussion as to the relative guilt of our first parents in that first great transgression; but both were banished from Paradise, and both received the sentence of death. When the flood came as a punishment for sin, no doubt there was some difference in the people. Some were gross sinners, some were aesthetic in their tastes, and passed as respectable citizens; but the waters devoured them all with the exception of the eight penitent and believing ones. Why was this so? God gives the answer, “there is no difference, for all have sinned.”

It does not avail that men say, but I do not feel that I am a sinner. I have always tried to do what was right. And my neighbors have always respected me, and given me a good name. It does not matter how we feel, or what men say. God says, “there is no difference, for all have sinned.” And until God is allowed to have His way nothing can be done for us. Let us not resist the operations of the Holy Spirit. Let us allow Him to hold up for us the mirror of His holy law. It will reveal to us our real condition, sinners, miserable sinners, resting under the just condemnation of holy God. One of England’s former great preachers started out in his ministry as a decided rationalist and unitarian. He was inclined to rail at such passages as our text, but study of the Word brought him to a clear understanding of their full truthfulness. And he confessed that even in his former days, down deep in his inner life, he was conscious that these words painted a life-size portrait of himself. So it must be with all of us. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” And all sin, every sin, big or little, which is loved, lived in, unrepented of, condemns, and severs from fellowship with God.

But the mere consciousness of sin is not enough. All the world, deep down in its inner consciousness, knows there is something wrong. And though many everywhere oppose the biblical teaching of sin when it is brought home to them in an individual manner; still, everywhere, in lands heathen and civilized, there are abundant evidences of the presence of a dark gnawing fear, the fear of the consequences of sin. But neither the consciousness of sin, nor the fear of it, suffice to remove it. Nor are there any sacrifices, or labors, however great, strenuous, or protracted, which will suffice to remove the galling burden of sin. Paul tried it, Luther tried it, ten thousand times ten thousand harassed souls have tried it, tried it by every conceivable means; but all in vain. There is but one cure for sin, the Christ of the cross.

When erring Israel was suffering from the bites of the plague of serpents, there was but one cure. All the science in the universe, all the remedies in the pharmacopoeia of nature, would not have sufficed. God had Moses to put up a sign. And God said to the people, look and ye shall live. If they looked they were healed. If they refused to look they died. So it is with the crucified Jesus. God says, here is my remedy for sin, and all its ills. It will be universally and fully effective. It is ready to be bestowed without money and without price. God says, Come, I am waiting, longing, anxious to bestow the remedy. But it must be this remedy, there is no other. Those who will not be cured in this way must go uncured.

Some find it difficult to believe that there is such a universal, and effective remedy; a remedy so easily to be received. But we take this truth on the same ground on which we accept the fact of sin, on the ground of God’s holy Word. As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden. And just as soon as the Spirit of God has broken down the barriers of pride and unbelief, and a humbly penitent heart cries out, “God be merciful to me a sinner, just so soon God’s pardon is given. Just so soon as the hand of faith goes out to touch the hem of Christ’s garment, it matters not how diffident and trembling that hand may be, the heavenly stream of healing efficacy goes forth, the accursed paralyzing burden of sin is removed, the health of the Christ-life is given.

And just here the blessed doctrine of justification comes in. Indeed, this is the doctrine of justification. God’s Word everywhere teaches us that just as soon as a man becomes conscious of his sinful condition, deplores it, repents of the evil, and believes that Jesus is the only Saviour from sin, in that moment God accepts him as His child. This is the act of justification. It is not a process which may be drawn out through months, or years. It is an instantaneous act of God. It takes place just as soon as there is in the heart of a man a faith which looks to Christ. And it matters not how feeble and fluttering this faith may be.

Justification is not the infusing of a new nature into man. It is a judicial declaration on God’s part concerning man’s relationship to Him. But it is more than a mere declaration. It is an act of God which changes man’s whole relationship to Him. In this act of God there is a complete removal of all the guilt of man’s sin, the perfect righteousness of Christ is given to the pardoned one, and he is received into full sonship and heirship.

It is often difficult for us to accept this precious truth. It hurts our pride. It does not leave us anything of which to boast. Or it seems too good to be true. It seems hard to believe that God would condescend to do so much for such unworthy creatures. And all kinds of doubts the devil tries to instill into our minds. But we take God’s Word for it. We will meet every objection with a thus saith the Lord. Because He says it, we “conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”

2. What Makes Justification Possible

Let us now give attention to this thought, — the ground of this justifying act of God, or, if you please, that which makes it possible for God to justify poor sinners.

Nowhere in His economy does God act arbitrarily. God does not do things without a reason. Nor can He in His almightiness say that sin is not sin. Even God cannot take away sin without meeting the demands of justice. To do so one side of His being would be stultifying another equal side of His nature. There must be a ground on the basis of which God can still be God, still be just, still be true and loving, and yet forgive and justify men.

Justification, as we have seen, cannot be purchased by any mere human effort. The combined genius, wealth, achievement, or sacrifice of the race would never purchase forgiveness and justification for one soul. Only the God-man could make justification possible. And He could purchase it, not with gold, or silver, though the riches of the universe are His; but only by His perfect obedience to God’s holy law, and by His innocent sufferings and death.

The procuring cause of our justification is the grace, the mercy, the goodness, the love of God. Defaced and defiled by sin though the children of men were God loved them still. The father of the prodigal son, as you will remember, is represented as watching, with longing eyes, the way which led to the far country; for the young man there, clothed in rags, blur-eyed from dissipation, dejectedly, hopelessly feeding swine, while his own hunger gnawed insatiably, was still his boy; his lost, wandering boy. That is given as a picture of God’s attitude toward the children of men. And this love of God for man set Him to work to find a way for man’s reclamation and restoration. This whole story is told in that one inexpressibly precious verse of St. John: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The real ground of justification is found in Jesus Christ and His work in man’s behalf. God cannot say that black is white, that sin is not sin. God says, the soul that sinneth shall die. He, then, could not be true and let sin pass by unscourged. God has to be just when He justifies (Rom. 3:26). Just in the antecedents which prepare for justification as well as just in bestowing justification when all the requirements are met. So Divine love conceived the plan of having His Son become man, a God-man, so that He could take man’s place. The Son of God did this. As man’s substitute He suffered the penalties of man’s transgressions, the righteous One for the unrighteous ones. He also fulfilled God’s holy law for man, and wrought out a righteousness which meets the demands of God’s holiness.

This is the precious Scripture doctrine which puts a real foundation under man’s feet, which gives him the assurance of salvation. If we want to be saved we must go to Christ. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. We are justified, says our text, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Away with self-righteous thoughts, away with torturing fear; let us flee for refuge to Christ, there, and there alone can we find forgiveness, the cleansing, the righteousness which will restore us to the family of the children of God. And there we shall be sure to find it.

3. When Does Justification Happen?

One chief point remains yet to be answered, how do we become possessed of Christ’s redemptive work? What is it that marks that all-important point when God performs His act of justification? Faith is the hand which appropriates Jesus’ redemptive work, in the moment when a man believes he is justified.

There are a great many possibilities in the world which never become realities. When the Son of God came down from heaven, and paid man’s debt for him, He made it possible for every one of the lost sons and daughters of Adam’s race to be justified and saved; but all are not justified and saved. The simple reason is that they will not have it so. God has provided the remedy, they will not permit it to be applied.

There is one simple condition which God requies, which the nature of things requires, if we are to be justified; this one thing is faith, faith in the goodness of God, faith in the person and the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ. Any one who knows his Bible knows how full it is of this truth that belief, or faith, decides man’s acceptance with God, or his rejection. It cannot be otherwise, for by his unbelief man rejects God, and refuses to allow Him to do anything for him.

It is not faith as a work on man’s part which causes God to regard him as a fit subject for justification. It is the faith which, recognizing its own sinfulness and helplessness, surrenders itself to God, trusts His promises, especially as they are centered in the saving work of God’s dear Son. And just the moment a poor heavy-laden sinner comes thus to God with his anguished cry, God be merciful to me a sinner, in that instant he is accepted, the saving efficacy of Jesus’ blood becomes his, his sins are washed away, he is accepted as a child of God; he is justified.

What a previous, consolatory doctrine is this of justification. Instead of looking to self, with all our weaknesses and vacillations, in thought, desire, and will, we turn to the perfect Saviour. Are we weak, He is strong. Are we imperfect, He is perfect. Instead of contemplating, in despair, our futile efforts to scale the heights, and bring with us fruits acceptable to God, we turn to God’s Son, He has scaled the heights for us, and brought to God the perfect treasure. Trusting Him, He gives to us Himself, and all His blood-bought treasures. We are then safe, God is for us, who can be against!

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

To request a printable copy [PDF] send an email to: editor@lutheranlibrary.org with the title of this post.

Luther's Small Catechism: Series B – The Apostles' Creed

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
  • Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0

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