Justified: Getting Right With God

Self-righteous Pharisee was not justified by God, but the sinful tax collector was

Justified: Getting Right With God


Jesus once told a parable about two men who were at the temple praying. At the end of his story, one man went away justified, while the other did not. What does it mean to be justified by God? Some think it’s a complex theological word that average believers should quickly pass over. Though the meaning is profound, it’s actually quite understandable. It’s getting right with God. Let’s read the story.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18: 10-14)

So, the sinful tax collector went away justified before God, and not the self-righteous Pharisee. Based on Jesus’ use of the word, we see that being justified is closely connected to forgiveness before God, and God’s mercy toward the sinner. Surprisingly, it’s also connected to repentance. Let’s find out why.


What is Justification?

Although the word is never completely defined in one concise statement, justify in this parable and throughout the Bible means to be put into a right relationship with God. Those who are justified are in good standing with God, accepted by him. He no longer condemns them, so they have no guilt that separates them from him. They are acceptable to God to live freely in his presence. In the popular vernacular, it means getting right with God.


Why do we need to be justified?

Our salvation includes much more than justification. It includes the provision of God’s Holy Spirit, sanctification (growing and maturing spiritually), and the secure hope of eternal life, to name a few. But before we can enjoy any part of salvation, we must be in a right relationship with God.

Many people believe if they live a good life, then God will accept them. But no one is good enough to be accepted by God this way. Others believe that performing certain religious rites and ceremonies will justify them before God. It’s true that many religious ceremonies have deep meaning. But in themselves they’re powerless to bring us into a right standing with God. This is because we have all sinned: against God and our fellow humans. But our offenses are not only against other people. No, they are ultimately offenses against God. We are guilty before him.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:23)

All of us fall short of God’s standards and expectations in both thoughts and actions. So, how can we be justified by God if we are guilty before him?


The basis for our justification is Christ’s death

There must be a just basis for God justifying guilty people. The answer is the sacrificial death of the Messiah. Seven hundred years before Christ, the prophet Isaiah foretold the blessings that would come from the death of the Messiah:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  (Isaiah 53:5)

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days…. by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.  (Isaiah 53:10-11)

Jesus Christ is the long-awaited Messiah, and his sacrificial death is the basis for which we can be made right with God. Speaking of Christ, Paul wrote:

He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25)

This means God gave his Son Jesus over to death to pay the penalty for our sins.  The penalty for our sins was death, and Jesus paid it by dying in our place. He took our impending death and made it his own death.

Justification is a gift

The apostle Paul explains in Romans that justification is an act of God’s grace, given freely as a gift by God. Reading further in Romans chapter 3:

….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 3:23-24)

God gives this gift freely through the redemption available in Christ, the Messiah. It is not anything we deserved or could ever merit. And it’s not something that we could ever achieve on our own. This gift is Christ’s atoning sacrificial death, which God provided for the sins of the world.

 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.  (Romans 3:24-25) 

God’s gift received by faith

But this sacrifice doesn’t benefit us at all unless we “receive it by faith”—unless we accept it personally for ourselves. So, this gift of a right relationship with God is ours through a response of faith. This means we are justified through trusting in what Christ did on our behalf. We are putting our faith in Christ and what he did, and not our own efforts.

…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. (Galatians 2:15-16)

Many Jews in the ancient world believed they were justified by performing “works of the law.” They trusted in their own righteous deeds and in performing the ceremonies given in the Law of Moses to make them acceptable to God. The Apostle Paul was one of these people before his dramatic conversion to faith in Christ. But afterward, he realized that only Christ’s death could make him acceptable to God. He also realized that the ceremonies in the Law were pictures or previews of the Messiah’s death, not formulas to be justified before God.

Faith “credited as righteousness”

In Romans 4 Paul gives the example of Abraham who was justified by faith, and how his faith was “credited as righteousness” by God. He explains what this means by quoting Psalm 32:

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” (Romans 4:6-8)


What happens when we are justified?


We are acquitted

First, God acquits us. Acquittal is when a person is declared not guilty of a crime they have been charged with.

Imagine a criminal being brought into a courtroom to be tried and sentenced for a crime they committed.  The defendant is clearly guilty and has already admitted to committing a heinous crime. The punishment for this crime is death. But the judge takes his seat and reads the charges that every defendant wants to hear: “The court finds the defendant not guilty.” With this declaration the accused can now go free. They have no remaining guilt in the case, and they can never be called back to court for this charge again.

But is it even possible that a defendant that has committed a crime and admits to it is completely acquitted? Has it ever happened? Yes, it has, and most notably in God’s court of law. If someone is justified by God, it means he acquits them and releases them of any charges because of their faith in Christ.

… God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)

We are no longer condemned

In the book of Romans, Paul refers to “those who are in Christ.” In his language, they are those who have been justified, having a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He declares that God no longer condemns those who are in Christ.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… (Romans 8:1)

If we are in Christ, we are free of any guilt before God, never to be condemned for our sins! What a glorious promise!

We are reconciled to God

We who are justified have also been reconciled to God, and we are now at peace with him:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…  (Romans 5:1)

Having been at enmity with God, we can now enjoy a fruitful relationship with him. And we can approach him with confidence and without fear.

We are saved from God’s anger

Paul reminds us that once justified, we will never suffer God’s anger when he judges the world:

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:9-10)

Because of Christ’s death, God turns his anger away from us. But those who remain defiant toward God and refuse to accept God’s gracious gift can’t partake of it. They remain condemned and separated from God and will receive his anger at the time of the final judgment.

God gives us Christ’s righteousness

To make us acceptable to him, God clothes us with Christ’s righteousness. Christ took our sinfulness on himself and gave us his righteousness, given as a gift. Referring to the believers, Paul wrote:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are now inseparably united to Christ. Not only does God now see us in Christ, but God sees Christ in us. And he sees us through him.

Christ is in us

The righteousness that God gives us is not just a theoretical or “positional” righteousness. And it’s not just an accounting exercise without any visible effects. It’s an actual reality, since we now have Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit.

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)

In this passage and those immediately following (8:5-11), Paul says now that we are justified, we possess God’s life and infinite power to allow us to live according to his will and pleasure. The Holy Spirit gives us the desire and the power to live according to God’s commands. So being justified does not mean God sets us free so we can go our own way or sin all we want. We are freed from guilt so we will serve and please God.

We have a secure future with Christ

For those who are in Christ, Paul declares that no one can condemn them, now or ever again:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. (Romans 8:31-33)

Only God can justify and acquit. And now that we are justified through Christ, he promises that nothing can separate us from his love. We are free forever.


Justification and mercy


Let’s now go back to Jesus’ parable. In this story, the repentant tax collector was the one who was justified. So how does justification relate to repentance?

First, recall that God is kind and merciful, and he longs to forgive. That is who God is: merciful and forgiving. So he provided the basis for our justification in Christ’s sacrificial death. But as the sovereign Lord, he has the power to acquit or condemn the guilty. So why doesn’t he automatically acquit everyone of guilt? The answer lies in the response of each person before God.

If, like the taxpayer, a person knows they have sinned and comes before God in humility and asks for mercy, he will be forgiven. This describes true repentance. And according to Jesus’ parable, God will be merciful and forgive him, removing his guilt, in agreement with Paul’s teaching.

However, if like the Pharisee, a person does not admit their guilt, will God acquit them? No, a person must admit their sin to be justified.  As Jesus said: “…this man [the tax collector] rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God.” God’s condemnation remains on those who are self-righteous and unrepentant. Anyone who does not admit their sin is defying God’s decree, that all have sinned.

An earthly example

Think about an earthly judge. If a convicted criminal comes before the court to be sentenced with a remorseful attitude, admits the crime and asks for mercy, a just judge will be more likely to grant a lighter sentence. And if this is how earthly judges think, how much more will our heavenly Father grant mercy to those who humbly ask him!

But if a criminal comes into the court with an arrogant and defiant attitude, the judge will probably want to throw the book at him and impose the maximum sentence. And it is the same with God: his anger will remain on those who have no remorse for their sin.

Is repentance a human effort?

Some Bible teachers say that repentance has nothing to do with justification. They say that it is a human effort, and any human effort in the process of salvation is “adding to Christ’s work on the cross.” But Jesus’ parable thoroughly disproves this view.

Actually, true repentance (the kind shown by the tax collector) is a perfect expression of faith because it demonstrates complete dependance on God. It is totally throwing oneself at the mercy of God and giving up any pretense of righteousness. By definition, it’s trusting not in one’s own righteousness, but in God and his promise to forgive.


Are you justified?

So, where do you as a reader stand with God? Have you been justified? If not, it’s very simple. Admit your guilt before God. Come before him and ask for mercy, putting your trust in Christ and his gracious act of dying for you.

God does not deceive. He means what he says, and his promise is good: through Christ those who deserve death will be fully pardoned and set free. And if Christ sets you free, you will be really free—now, and forever.





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2 thoughts on “Justified: Getting Right With God”

  1. The fallen world in which we live is, sadly, built upon a foundation of unrighteousness and injustice. Even without ill intent, it’s impossible to live a sinless life in such an unjust world. But we each add our own shortcomings to the mix, every day. Some years ago, it occurred to me that after Christ’s return, we will all have to look back and forgive a great deal, with regard to one another.

    I’ve been wronged by others, but I have also wronged others. Everyone has sinned against God and their fellow man, and none of us are capable of balancing the scales. Salvation is only possible because God provided a means for this through His Son. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable misses the point. If we compare ourselves to the sins of others, we might feel a degree of justification, but both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector were sinners in God’s eyes. The Pharisee is essentially pointing out what he hasn’t done as a way of justifying what he has done. This would be analogous to a drug dealer defending themselves in court by pointing out that they aren’t a murderer. At best, this is flawed reasoning and at worst, it ignores the fact that none of us can separate ourselves from the injustice of this fallen world.

    When our deliverance arrives, we will all have to look towards our Redeemer with gratitude and recognize that those whom have sinned against us are but a drop in the bucket in comparison with our sins before God. If God can forgive our debts, we can forgive the debts of others, and thankfully, others will be able to forgive our debts to them. It can be easy to forget that this world is fallen. But the fact remains that in our fallen state (as individuals), plus the fallen state of human society, we cannot attain justification without the gift of Salvation by means of Christ.

    1. Mark,

      Your comment is right on target. Your points are a great addition to my article and add clarification to the motives behind the Pharisee’s prayer. My prayer is that everyone who reads this post will understand justification as well as you.

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