Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – How and when do we gain right legal standing before God?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In his chapter on Justification, Wayne Grudem addresses how a person gets a right legal standing with God. Grudem defines justification as “an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.”

Grudem covers four major areas related to justification. For one, he illustrates how justification includes a legal declaration by God. Second, he reviews God’s declaration of Christian’s being just in his sight. Third, he shows how God can declare us to be just because he imputed Christ’s righteousness to people. Fourth, he shows how justification comes by God’s grace, not by any merit in ourselves. Finally, he reviews the mechanism by which a Christian is justified: faith. 

Justification Includes a Legal Declaration By God

The term “justification” or in Greek dikaiosis (δικαίωσις) has a range of meanings in the New Testament, but it often means “to declare righteous.” There are a few verses that illustrate this definition, emphasis mine

  • “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John” (Luke 7:29).
  • “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
  • Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:33-34).

Justification in Scripture and in common theological parlance is how a person comes to be in right standing with God. A person is reckoned to be righteous, not because of something they did but because of God’s declaration of acquittal through Christ’s work. John Murray is quoted to illustrate how justification is used: as a judge in a legal proceeding.  

“Regeneration is an act of God in us: justification is a judgment of God with respect to us. The distinction is like that of the distinction between the act of a surgeon and the act of a judge. The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us. This is not what a judge does – he gives a verdict regarding our judicial status. If we are innocent he declares accordingly.” 

God Declares Us to Be Just in His Sight

There are two aspects In God’s declaration of justification. For one, it means we do not pay the penalty for our sin: past, present, and future. In the words of Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). So we who are in Christ are no longer condemned. But it’s not enough. Not being guilty of sin is the same situation that Adam was in before the Fall: morally neutral.

The second thing justification does is gives us favor with God. It moves us from a point of having moral neutrality to positive righteousness before God. Isaiah speaks of this when he wrote, “for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Or again Paul referred back to Genesis 15:6 when he recounted, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). In these ways, God gives us righteousness when we believe in him. 

God Can Declare Us to Be Just Because He Imputes Christ’s Righteousness

Justification is the declaring sinners to be righteous before God. Imputation is how it happens. Imputation is the idea of accounting guilt or righteousness to someone else. In justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers. That makes it three times imputation has happened thus far in systematic theology: 

  1. When Adam sinned, God imputed that sin to every person (Romans 5:19).
  2. When Christ died, our sin was imputed to Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  3. Christ’s righteousness was imputed to believers (1 Corinthians 1:30). 

Roman Catholicism views justification differently than do Reformed Protestants. They teach “infused righteousness,” not imputed righteousness. Catholics do not see a reckoning of righteousness upon sinners but rather an infusion of righteousness into sinners. Because this infusion of righteousness mixes with the sinner’s good works, the Reformers rejected the Catholic perspective on justification as extra-biblical. 

Instead, the Bible teaches that God sees righteousness as a gift given to believers. As Paul wrote (emphasis mine), “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Grace is clearly placed in contrast to works to show that people have nothing to do with getting declared righteous (Ephesians 2:8,9, Titus 3:7). We may do good things, earn awards, and accomplish great things, but none of those things will commend us to God. Instead, it is God’s grace alone that justifies us. 

Application: God Justifies Us Through Faith

Finally, the means by which sinners are justified in God’s sight is only through faith. It is not through doing works of the Mosaic Law (Galatians 2:16). This was a way Judaism taught people to get right with God. Neither was it through baptism or some other good work. Many teachers throughout the ages have taught this work or that work will make you right with God. Not so. 

Instead, God saw fit to justify sinners by his grace through faith in him (Ephesians 2:8-9). This was one way to not trust in ourselves to reconcile us to God. Instead, it’s a humble thing to admit only God could get us right with himself. God did all the work by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and raised him up for our justification. We only must trust him to apply that work in our lives to be saved.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Special Terms

  • forensic
  • impute
  • infused righteousness
  • justification

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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