The Golden Chain of Redemption (5)
In fact, justification itself effects no actual change whatsoever in the sinner’s nature or character.134 It is an instantaneous change of one’s status before God, not a gradual transformation that takes place within the one who is justified.135
In a similar way, the justification spoken of in Scripture is God’s divine verdict of “not guilty—fully righteous” pronounced on the sinner. In the case of justification, it is not that the accused is innocent but that another has paid in full the penalty for his crimes.
Now, it is true that the saving grace of God is transformative; those who are declared righteous in conversion will be progressively made righteous throughout the course of their Christian lives. However, this progressive transformation defines the reality not of biblical justification but of sanctification.
The inevitable consequence is that the believer’s own imperfect righteousness replaces the perfect righteousness of Christ as the sole ground of justification.
As discussed above, judges do not make people righteous or wicked. They perform no transformative act that infuses righteousness or wickedness into the nature or character of a person. Instead, a judge merely declares a defendant to be righteous or guilty.
First, justification is shown to be declarative and not transformative in those instances in which God is the one said to be justified.
If the sense of justification were transformative, this would be nothing short of blasphemy, for the notion that the people and the tax collectors could have effected a positive moral transformation in God is nonsense.
Second, justification is often clearly contrasted with condemnation, and condemnation obviously speaks of a legal declaration.
God’s justifying act is clearly contrasted with bringing a charge and condemning. But to condemn someone does not mean to make someone wicked; it means to render a verdict and declare that he is wicked. For the parallel between justification and condemnation to hold, we must also understand that justification does not mean to make righteous but to declare righteous.
Therefore, when we turn to texts that speak of God justifying the believer in a salvific sense (e.g., Rom. 3:20–28; 4:4–5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, 21–26; 5:4), we ought to understand them to be referring to God’s instantaneous declaration that the sinner is in a right standing before him. These passages teach that God declares the believer to be righteous as a gift of his grace, which the believer receives by faith alone apart from works.