One of the major distinctions between Biblical Christianity and other false teachings is the truth that we are justified by faith alone, as taught in Romans 3: 20 – 28.
Justification is a judicial act pronouncing someone righteous. This legal pronouncement differs from forgiveness and pardon. When our president pardons individuals, customarily as one of his last acts before leaving the office because there is usually outrage from some group over the pardons. The pardoned person is not considered innocent according to the law. The pardon releases the individual from the demands of justice despite their guilt. In justification, God declares the sinner just and the person is righteous and innocent. How is this possible? Most of the first three chapters of Romans deal with the universal depravity of humanity. In 3:23 Paul says “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” so that means no one is just or righteous (no, not one). How can we then be justified if we are guilty?
We cannot be justified by our works, because it is by our works we are found guilty. 3:20 says “…by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” because the law exposes, condemns, and seals our guilt. We cannot stand before God and say “I am a righteous person, examine me by the 10 commandments and you’ll see that I am a just person.” Have you ever sinned? Then you are not just according to the law.
But justification is possible! We are justified “freely by his grace”. God sent his Son to redeem the elect of God by his free, undeserved gift. Whereas justification is a legal term, redemption is an accounting term. It’s to buy or to purchase. Jesus Christ came to purchase guilty people from the demands of justice, by being a “propitiation” for His people. The word propitiation is translated “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5. It’s the cover of the ark of the covenant. This is where there “propitiatory sacrifice” was made on the Day of Atonement. Propitiation means that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and His shed blood, our sins are expiated and paid for by Christ receiving the divine judgment for the sins of his people as a substitute, and “covering” our sins through His blood and removing them from our account. Christ is the “mercy seat” for his people by being the atoning sacrifice. By being our propitiation, Christ removes our guilt and then imputes his righteousness to our account. With our sin dealt with on the cross and clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we are declared justified.
We need our sins expiated and must have the righteousness of another and someone to be just on our behalf. We are justified, not by works, but by faith. Faith that Christ paid our sins and rose for our justification and “therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” Romans 3:28.