Salvation: a courtroom view

Notes on John Stott’s
The Cross of Christ
Chapter 7: The Salvation of Sinners

So far, we’ve looked at two ways of describing what takes place at salvation: propitiation and redemption. Now, we shall turn to the courtroom for our third view, the view that is most personally meaningful to me.

Justification is a legal term–a term that refers to being proven or shown to be right or just. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. While condemnation proves that one is in the wrong or has done wrong, justification proves that one is in the right and has done right. In this way, justification differs from a “not guilty” verdict (which implies only that there was insufficient evidence to condemn). Justification involves a declaration of righteousness.

My dad has been ministering in our local Juvenile Detention Center for years and has an illustration that he loves to use to describe justification to the inmates. He’ll ask the inmates to think of their criminal records–all of them have them–and then to imagine that everything they’d ever done (good and bad, whether they’d gotten caught or not) was written on that record. Then he’ll describe Jesus’ record–a record that declares that he had never done anything wrong, and had in fact done everything right. Justification, my dad describes, is when God trades Jesus’ record for ours. Jesus took our rap, and gave us His own righteousness.

I loved this illustration–still love it. But in the summer of 2006, I discovered that I’d let this illustration become a stumbling block to me, keeping me from reveling in the fullness of justification. You see, I’d gotten so caught up in the paperwork aspect of the record, that I missed a vital point.

God didn’t just trade my paperwork with Jesus’–He traded my identity. Christ became sin for me. I became, in Christ, the righteousness of God.

“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
II Corinthians 5:21

I’d been thinking paperwork and seeing my situation like this: I stand before God and He looks at me with disgust, seeing the filthy sinner that I am. He turns His face away with an “Eww, gross”, but before He banishes me from His presence or pours out His wrath on me, He calls to an angel to pull my file. The angel returns with my file. When God the Father sees that my file and Christ’s have been replaced, He swallows back His distaste and beckons me forward–“It’s okay, you’re covered.”

I was glad to be right with God on paper, but I really craved being right with God for real. To that end, I worked. I made lists of rules and strove to keep them. I pored over the Scriptures, trying to figure out how to be the “perfect Christian”. I volunteered with a dozen ministries, hoping that my involvement could somehow allay that initial recoil I felt sure God experienced when He looked at me.

And then, by the grace of God, He used a sermon by Jerry Bridges, delivered in Jacksonville Florida, to open my eyes to the reality that I was right before God for real. It wasn’t just on paper. It was reality. I was righteous in God’s eyes. Nothing I could do could make me right before God–because I already WAS right before God through Jesus Christ.

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
Galatians 2:16

That reality transformed my life. It was maybe six months before I got over the daily reminders of how different life was now that I understood justification. Before, I would sin and immediately bash myself over the head, intent upon doing penance. “You are a bad person,” I’d say. Now, I found myself going to God, repenting of my sin–“Lord, I have sinned.” And far from dissuading me from a desire for holiness and service, the realization that I was already right before God gave me new motivation. Now, rather than desperately attempting to justify myself, I was at peace in the knowledge that I was justified in Christ–and my heart’s desire was to turn that into worship through my life.

To this day, I can barely think of justification and of the miracle God wrought in my life that summer without tearing up. What a wonderful grace, a marvelous love, that God made me righteous through no act of my own, but merely through faith in His divine act.

“Moreover, the faith which justifies is emphatically not another work. No, to say ‘justification by faith’ is merely another way of saying ‘justification by Christ’. Faith has absolutely no value in itself; its value lies solely in its object. Faith is the eye that looks to Christ, the hand that laid hold of him, the mouth that drinks the water of life. And the more clearly we see the absolute adequacy of Jesus Christ’s divine-human person and sin-bearing death, the more incongruous does it appear that anybody could suppose that we have anything to offer. That is why justification by faith alone, to quote Cranmer…’advances the true glory of Christ and beats down the vain glory of man.'”
~John Stott, The Cross of Christ

The cross is essential to an understanding of justification because it is the means by which true justification could occur.

“When God justifies sinners, He is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinners after all; he is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because he himself in his Son has borne the penalty of their law-breaking….The reasons why we are ‘justified freely by God’s grace’ are that Christ Jesus paid the ransom-price and that God presented him as a propitiatory sacrifice. In other words, we are ‘justified by his blood.’ There could be no justification without atonement.”
~John Stott, The Cross of Christ

(See more notes on The Cross of Christ here.)

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