Justification is greater than Forgiveness

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith
Romans 3:21-25

Something hit me the other day as I was preparing for a teaching. In this passage, Paul does not say that we are forgiven. Forgiveness is a squishy and difficult idea. The idea is that we have done some harm to someone, and in forgiving, they will endeavor not to hold it against us. It ends up being an unsatisfying solution, because in our conscience we know that it leaves our sin still sitting there unpunished and undealt with. Our lack of condemnation depends wholly on the strength of will of the one harmed, to continue to forget that we harmed them. We remain in their debt, they still hold a kind of power of extortion over us, even if they don’t want to.

Justification is different. It doesn’t say, you have done wrong, but I will try to forget it. It focuses on the wrong done, and says squarely, this was wrong. This was very wrong. It was unjust. Since justice is God’s love spread around to lots of sinners, our sin violated love. It needs to be publicly declared wrong, publicly punished, so that all will know that justice must be served for such a wrong done. Justification says, your sin was displayed publicly as worthy of condemnation and terrible punishment in Christ. When we say that we believe Christ died for our sins, we are not just forgiven, we are justified. In our conscience, as believers, we feel that we MUST say that justice has been served for our sins, because otherwise we make His terrible death on our behalf of no account.

This is the big difference between forgiveness and justification. Forgiveness leaves justice on the table, it leaves sin unpunished but unjustified. Among the brethren, we have something greater than forgiveness with one another. We have the understanding that their sin against us has been declared unjust and wrong with vengeance and violence. It has been abundantly addressed. I don’t have to think that I am just trying to forget what they have done to me or that they are trying to forget what I have done to them. Forgetting is not the issue or the power of attorney here. The blood of Jesus Christ is the power, and it is most certainly sufficient.

In the end, of ourselves, we can only forgive. We do not have the power to bear someone else’s punishment. As the psalmist says,

7 No man can by any means redeem his brother Or give to God a ransom for him–
8 For the redemption of his soul is costly, And he should cease trying forever–
9 That he should live on eternally, That he should not undergo decay.
Psalms 49:7-9

So, we can and should forgive 70 times 7 a day, because what is coming or what is needed has come: a savior who can justify us, who can pay truly for the redemption of our souls. However, in forgiving, we must not make the error of thinking that we are their savior, that we hold the power of attorney over them. True forgiveness on our part acknowledges that their justification in Christ is sufficient, and I refuse to say otherwise. Forgiveness under Christ is stronger than mere forgetfulness, it is constantly putting the sins of those around us under the terrible wrath displayed publicly on the cross. Justification is stronger and more lasting and makes more sense than forgiveness, because it accounts for the vengeance that our soul knows must be visited upon our various sins. In Christ, our conscience is washed clean, and we are free indeed!

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9 Comments

  1. In the Catholic Church justification is granted by God from baptism firstly, (Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1992 “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.”) instead of plainly by faith, and from the Sacrament of Reconciliation after if a mortal sin is committed.(Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1446 “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” ” A mortal sin makes justification lost even if faith is still present. Before baptism faith is required of adults. The baptism of babies requires the parents’ promise to pass on the faith to the child. Baptism is called the sacrament of faith.

  2. Thanks for sharing this JJ, it was good to have some history on the ways people have looked at justification! I am thanking the Lord God from the bottom of my heart that I never got entangled in catholicism; I am a protestant, square and true. I do not stand on the authority of the catholic church and its edicts, but on the authority of scripture:

    23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
    24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
    25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.
    (Romans 3:23-25, NASB).

  3. Forgiveness merely excuses a sin (a fault) while justification removes the very charge of that sin. Justification is God’s (one time—”once for all”) declaration of NOT GUILTY…. Our sin (all of our sin) went to the cross and our Lord’s death satisfied God’s justice concerning the WORLDS sin. Our next sin and every sin thereafter was on the cross. We sin because we are trusting our “flesh” (our memories, our habit patterns, and our coping skills) to solve a problem and/or meet a need instead of TRUSTING God (2 Co 1:9). Not to worry, God will fix it all in his process of sanctification (2 Co 4:7)….

  4. This was an excellent explanation of the difference between forgiveness and
    justification – explain, if you would, the value of forgiveness, for instance, in
    Acts 13:38-39 – in other words, your explanation almost makes forgiveness not
    only less but not needed, yet doctrinally we need to be forgiven – “Be of good
    cheer, your sins are forgiven” – how does forgiveness fit into the picture in light
    of justification? Dan – 715 563 1642

    • No, forgiveness is huge. But there is no crossless, bloodless, clean and nice forgiveness that does not transgress justice. You can’t “forgive” without propitiation. Good question.

    • This begs the question: what exactly is forgiveness? Most often it is simply assumed. If it is anything besides “propitiated”, then what could it mean? That one forgets the transgression? Or that one refuses to pursue retribution? Why are these things good? They violate justice.

      Forgiveness in Christian parlance means, we believe in the power of propitiation for the other’s offense toward us.

      6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. – 1 John 1:6-10 NASB

      Notice how the idea of “forgiveness” is absent in this seminal passage on Christian fellowship? It puts the propitiation right at the heart of it all. It is not that there is not forgiveness, but that it is couched in terms of faith in Christ and Him crucified. It says, we constantly need to forgive one another, and it happens through the transparency of confession and of faith in the power of Christ’s blood to achieve justice.

  5. It is then as if forgiveness is the fruit or effects of justice – we can be forgiven because we have been justified – does that make sense? If so, it is as if forgiveness takes on a distinct doctrinal meaning because in normal English we interpret being forgiven as being pardon not due to becoming innocent but having paid the debt 9r being granted clemeny

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