What Does It Mean to be Justified?

‘There is a “cute” little phrase one sometimes hears in the church to define the concept of justification. “Justification,” they say, means, “just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned.” Though the motivations of the people quoting it may be good, this phrase is often used to express unbiblical definitions of the doctrine of justification.

One of the false ideas promoted by “just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned” is that when someone is forgiven, that person is no longer guilty for his sin. But there is no indication in the Scriptures that this is the case. There are no biblical references that once someone is forgiven he is no longer guilty of having broken God’s law. [1] Forgiven people will never be “not guilty,” but they will not be condemned for their sin, which is something completely different.

Another good reason not to define justification as “not guilty” is that it is simply not necessary. As long as sin can be forgiven, and the penalty of sin not carried out on the person, there is no need for the person’s guilt to be eliminated.

There is another reason why “just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned” cannot mean that a justified person is no longer guilty of sin. God is the Truth, and as the Truth he cannot change history in order to forgive. God is going to judge every deed done in the body, whether good or evil. [2] In order to judge every act, God must know every act and whether or not that act was good or bad. If God changes history so that a person who has stolen is not guilty of that sin, then he could never judge the person for that act.

Some people define justification as a change in the way God views people. When he forgives, they say, he then sees them differently from what they really are. Though they may be sinful, he sees them as righteous. He supposedly does this through the cross. Once someone is forgiven, God does not look at them directly, but through what Jesus did for them. It is as though God has put on “Jesus colored glasses” and no longer sees the person as he really is. Some people teach that the person has a legal “standing” that is different from the person’s actual “state.” The biblical words “reckoned,” “imputed,” or “accounted” are sometimes pressed into service to support this idea. But this is reading a definition into the words that is simply not there.

In order for sin to be imputed, or for faith to be reckoned as righteousness, it is only necessary for God to either hold the person accountable for sin (meaning the person will be punished), or not hold the person accountable (meaning the person will not be punished). If the person’s “state” is “forgiven,” there is no need for God to see the person as different from what he is, or to arrange some kind of legal “standing” for the person that is different from his state. Forgiveness of sin, such that the penalty is not carried out, is sufficient to qualify as a definition for “imputed righteousness.” Some go so far as to imagine that God sees the person as righteous, even if the person is currently engaged in sinning.

While it is true that our covenant relationship with God does not simply evaporate every time we sin, there is still no biblical reason to assume that God does not see us exactly as we are when we are engaged in breaking his law. How could the Holy Spirit convict us of sin if he did not know we were sinning? How could we grieve the Spirit of God if he never saw us as anything other than righteous? God has a very good sense of reality, he knows when we
sin, and he sees us exactly as we are.

There is a very interesting verse relating to this subject in the book of Malachi. [3] There God says that something the Israelites were saying made him tired. (…) So what could the Israelites say that could so affect God? They were saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them.” In other words, God still views people as good, even though they are doing evil. This kind of talk makes God tired. So much for Jesus colored glasses!

What is justification then? To be justified is to have our sin forgiven, such that the penalty of that sin will not be carried out on us as the guilty parties. We remain guilty for the sin, but because of the atonement of Christ, and our meeting of the conditions (repentance, faith), God is free to release us from the punishment we deserve to receive. He can treat us governmentally as if we were righteous, even though we are guilty of breaking his law. It is this governmental treatment as righteous, even though we are guilty, that constitutes justification.

And this is all we need. God does not have to view us differently from what we are, he does not need to distort history, and he does not have to make us not guilty for our sin. As long as he can forgive us and not have to execute the penalty of the law upon us, we can be restored to relationship with him—which is salvation and eternal life.’

Source: Michael R. Saia, Understanding the Cross, Chapter 8: The Principle of Atonement in the Death of Jesus: The Complete Solution, p 131-133.


[1] There are some translations of the Bible that give this impression by translating the Greek phrase “not condemned” as “not guilty.” John 3:18 and I Timothy 1:5 in the New Life Version are examples. New Life Version (Canby, OR: Christian Literature International, 1969).

[2] II Corinthians 5:10.

[3] Malachi 2:17.


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