In common usage, the word “justify” connotes making excuses…We’re all familiar with the expression: “the end justifies the means”…A person can rationalize bad behavior by attaching an honorable motive to it…The problem with this logic is that a wrong action is still wrong regardless of WHY you do it. Justifying your sin by dressing it up in good intentions is like putting lipstick on a pig…It still ain’t pretty!
So why does the church talk about justification, justifying grace, and being justified as something good when it sounds so bad? Maybe the answer is found in a not-so-common definition of the word “justify”…“To judge, regard, or treat as righteous and worthy of salvation.” The key for us is to understand that God has decided that we are worthy of salvation. That may be hard to believe, considering who we all are, but it’s the truth…Being justified means that we are assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth of this story: Through Jesus Christ, God did something decisive about our sad situation…We were living as slaves to sin and spiritual death and Jesus set us free. Humanity rejected the sovereignty and generosity of God…We rebelled against God’s desire for us and chose to believe that we were as smart as God and that we could take care of ourselves…Time and time again it was proven just how wrong we could be…Yet we continue to rebel against God and make up excuses for our bad behavior. In spite of our arrogance and our lack of respect for our Creator, God reached out to us, found us in our wandering, and brought us back to him in the person of Jesus…“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6)
Justification is not about making excuses, it IS about being forgiven of our sins and being reconciled to God…Putting this relationship back together is God’s desire and it requires our faith and trust in the transformation of our selves as new creatures in Christ. Some call this process “conversion;” Others use the term “new birth” or “born again;” Some are justified in a dramatic, spontaneous event…For others, justification is experienced as a long process of transformation…However it happens for you, there is one thing that is certain and common for all…We are justified because of what God does, not what we do. John Wesley used the thief on the cross story from Luke 23 to illustrate this truth…This man did nothing; believed in almost nothing; and yet, when he turned to Jesus, Jesus turned completely to him and offered him the same promise offered to Abraham…Eternity in the presence of God…“That is pure justification,” said Wesley, “a pure work of God, and it is grace.”
The change that happens when we are justified may be instantaneous and dramatic, or it may be progressive over time…Either way, justification is the beginning of a life-long journey. Justification is not about us earning God’s love, but of discovering God’s faithfulness in loving us always.
John Wesley gave us a wonderful gift when he offered us his understanding of grace and the process of salvation. Prevenient grace is God’s love at work in our lives from the very beginning…God actively loves all of humanity even when we don’t realize it or even recognize we need God’s forgiveness and love…Prevenient grace draws us toward God and opens us to the possibility of hearing God’s word and saying “YES” to Jesus…When we say yes and turn away from our sins, we are justified…God forgives us because we have turned to Him with faith and trust…Wesley used the image of a house as a metaphor for his understanding of how God’s grace works in our lives. Prevenient grace draws us to seek forgiveness as we recognize our sin and our need to repent or turn away from sin…Repentance is the porch of the house. The image of Jesus standing at the door and knocking reminds me of this concept of prevenient grace…Jesus is there, just outside the door waiting for us to answer…He continues to wait there until we respond…Our response comes when we finally see that we have sinned and need to change. When we open this door we are justified…That leads us to the next stage of Wesley’s house image.
Justification is the door we enter as God forgives us when we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Opening the door and stepping through it is how we discover the depth of God’s love for us. To be justified is to be pardoned…It is restoration of a broken relationship…The righteousness of Christ is assigned to us by the justifying grace of God…We do not deserve it, nor can we earn it; it is a gracious gift. Justification is based on the sacrifice on the Cross…Our faith in Jesus’ salvific action justifies us…“While we were still sinners Christ died for us…” (Romans 5:8) Once we have been justified and step through that door, we enter the house and spend the rest of our lives wrapped in God’s sanctifying grace…Sanctification is where we spend a lifetime learning about God, deepening our relationship with God, and seeking to do what God calls us to do. This is where what we do really matters…Our good works will never earn us God’s grace and our salvation…Our good works are our appropriate response to what God has done for us through grace…They are how we manifest the fact that we have been and are being saved through the grace of God.
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”
Our assurance comes from knowing that IF we put our faith in Jesus, THEN we are saved…It really is that simple and we need not worry. Bishop Will Willimon writes: “Justification and assurance are the ways we speak about the accepting, pardoning love that meets us in Jesus and his cross and resurrection and the way we name the decisive change that comes when we are given an awareness of that justification through Jesus Christ.” Justification results in joy in our faith…It enables us to live as free persons – not perfect, but accepted and forgiven by a gracious God. It empowers us to act with freedom from the fear that our actions may be inadequate…We can honestly face our incompleteness and deficiencies, knowing we are saved by God’s grace and not our own righteousness or judgment. A favorite old hymn goes like this:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
These timeless words remind us that Jesus is our assurance and that we inherit our salvation because of God’s willingness to decide that we are worthy of redemption…God’s grace is sufficient to nurture, care, and provide for us…With God’s grace comes the expectation that we will respond to God’s love by living according to Christ’s example. We have been justified…that is not an excuse, it is a challenge…In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.