Evening Sermon: What Is Justification? Baptist Catechism 36, Romans 3:21-30

Baptist Catechism 36

Question: What is justification?

Answer: Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. 

Scripture Reading: Romans 3:21-30

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Romans 3:21–30, ESV)


Please excuse any typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church but without the benefit of proofreading. 


I think it is fair to say that the doctrine of justification is among the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. There are other doctrines that are of supreme importance.  For example, it is imperative that we think correctly about the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture, the nature and attributes of God, and the person and work of Christ. Really, there is no such thing as an unimportant doctrine, since all doctrine does hang together — what we think about one topic affects what we think about other topics. But I’m sure that you would agree that some doctrines are more foundational and central to the Christain faith than others. The doctrine of justification is one of those foundational and central doctrines.

The doctrine of justification falls under the heading of the doctrine of salvation. When we talk about justification we are asking, in general, how can a sinner be made right with God? Certainly, this question should be of great concern to us. We know that we are by nature sinners who stand guilty before God. How can we be made right with him?  

It is well understood that this question was a central concern of that movement that was sparked in the 16th century by Martin Luther, commonly called the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers did not randomly decide to fixate on the doctrine of justification but were forced to given that this central and foundational doctrine had been so terribly distorted by the church as it developed (or we might say, degenerated) in the medieval period. In the days leading up to the Protestant Reformation, it was commonly taught and believed that a person was justified, not by the grace of God alone, and by faith in Christ alone, but by works also. To be justified, God must do his part, and you must do yours. That was the view, simply stated. 

There is only one problem with that view: it is not true, according to the scriptures. The Reformers were able to recover the truth regarding justification only because they first understood that the scriptures are our authority for truth, and not tradition, as the Romanists were teaching, and still teach to this present day. Five “solas” (or “alones” summarize the Reformed position: “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone); “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone); “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone); “Solus Christus” (Christ Alone); and “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory). Four of the five”solas” have the question of justification in view. How can a sinner be made right with God? Well, the Reformed said, and we agree with them, that we must go to the scriptures to find out, for the scriptures alone are our authority for truth. Tradition may be helpful — indeed, it is very helpful to consider what those who have gone before us in the history of the church have said — but tradition is not authoritative in the way that scripture is. “Sola scriptura”. And when we go to the scriptures with the question, how can a sinner be justified? The answer is very clear: by the grace of God alone, through faith in Christ alone, and to the glory of God alone.

You heard all of that when I read Romans 3:21-30 just a moment ago. 

The righteousness of God, that is to say, the righteousness that God requires and provides is made available to sinners apart from the law (though the law and prophets bear witness to it). In other words, no one will be made right before God by law-keeping. We cannot be justified through obedience to God or good works. When the Romanists teach that we are justified by grace, through faith, and by merit, they contradict the clear teaching of scripture. And they obliterate the gospel.  No, we are not made right by merit. Instead, “the righteousness of God [is] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” 

The apostle is clear, we are justified by grace. It is a gift to be received, not a reward to be earned. And how is this justification received? It is received by faith — faith in the Christ who laid down his life as a propitiation, or sacrifice, to atone for sin and to appease God’s wrath. God accomplished our salvation in this way so that he might be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”.

Paul notes, as he does in many other places, that there is no room for boasting, therefore. We are justified, not because of anything that we have done, but because of what God has done for us in sending his Son and in calling us to himself through faith in him. This is the gospel, pure and undefiled. It is all by the grace of God, and not of works, lest anyone should boast. 

And then Paul concludes that passage with these words, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” So no, there is not one way of salvation for the Jews, and another for the Gentiles. All have broken God’s law and are guilty. So if any are to stand righteous before the God of all creation, then they must be found in Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 


 Catechism Explained

As I have said before, our catechism is simply a summary of the teaching of Holy Scripture concerning doctrines that are foundational and central to the Christian faith. The catechism provides a very brief summary of the doctrines, and does so in the form of questions and answers. Our confession of faith also summarizes the teaching Holy Scripture. The confession is more thorough. And instead of asking questions and answers, it simply presents statements — the confession confesses what we believe the scriptures to teach. Both documents are very useful in their own ways. I would encourage you to look at the Second London Confession chapter 11 for a more thorough presentation of the doctrine of justification. For now, let us briefly consider Baptist Catechism 36 piece by piece. It is a marvelous little presentation of the Bible’s teaching on justification. 

Question: What is justification?

The first thing we learn is that “Justification is an act of God’s free grace…” 

Who justifies? It is not we who justify ourselves, but God who justifies us!

And why does he justify a sinner? What has moved him to do such a thing? Well, nothing deserving within the sinner. “Justification is an act of God’s free grace…” He justifies a sinner freely. It is by grace, which means that it is a gift, pure and simple. 

It is important that you are able to distinguish the difference between a gift and a wage. Paul actually makes this distinction in Romans 4, which follows the passage we have been considering tonight. When someone gives you something and calls it “a gift”, that means you did nothing to earn it, nor is anything expected of you in the future. It is a gift. If the person gives you something — money, or some other thing, as compensation for something that you did, or are expected to do, then it is a wage. It is payment for some good or service that was, or will be, rendered. And Paul is adamant, justification is a gift that is received, it is not a reward or payment to be earned. And so our catechism is right to say that “Justification is an act of God’s free grace…”

The word “wherein” indicates that we are about to be told what justification involves. Two things are mentioned: 

One, when we are justified “[God] pardoneth all our sins”. This means he forgives our sin, excuses our sin, and declares us not guilty. As I have said before, this is legal terminology. The judge of all the earth pardons us when we are justified.

Two, he “accepteth us as righteous in His sight…” The legal declaration brings about a change as it pertains to our position before God. We are moved from standing guilty before the judge, to being righteous in his sight. 

This is marvelous news. Not only does God pardon us, he makes us righteous. He does not merely forgive our sin so that he might send us away “not guilty”, he does also make us righteous so that we might stand before him. In financial terms, he does not merely forgive our great debt so that we have a balance of zero (only to send us away a broke beggars), a makes a deposit to our account of infinite worth so that we stand before him rich and well supplied.

How does he do this? How can the judge of all the earth simply pardon sin, and make those pardoned righteous? 

Actually, this is a problem that Paul addressed in that passage we have been considering. Do you remember that little phrase, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” That little phrase concludes a little section where Paul is wrestling with the question, how can God simply pardon sin? In other words, is it right or just for God to simply pardon sin. And if you follow the Apostle you will see his answer. God is able to be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”, because of the way that he has accomplished our redemption. In brief, he has provided a substitute. Someone truly righteous has died in the place of sinners, Christ Jesus the Lord. 

And notice, lastly, that our catechism concludes by making this very point, saying, “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

We are pardoned because our sins were paid for  by Christ on the cross. He stood in our place as our substitute. He bore the wrath that was owed to us. He paid the penalty that we deserved to pay. Our sins are forgiven because they have been paid for by Christ. And stand before God righteous because Christ has given his righteousness to us. 

A great exchange has taken place. Christ took our sins stained garments away, and we have been clothed in white, Christ’s righteousness having been imputed to us. And so we stand before God pure. We have reconciled to him, the problem of the guilt of sin having been removed. 

And how is all of this received? By faith. Faith is trusting in the work of another. Faith is running into the arms of Jesus for rescue. To have faith in Christ means that you have abandoned all hope and confidence in yourself, and look to Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. 

Let me ask you this, how else could we possibly receive this gift of salvation if not by faith. Any other means of receiving salvation would turn salvation from being a gift to be received into a reward to be earned. For Jesus Christ, salvation was a reward to be earned. He earned it through active and passive obedience to the Father. He perfectly accomplished God’s will, he kept God law, and he suffered in whole of life and in death. Christ earned salvation. But he gives this salvation to God’s elect as a gift. And I am asking, how else could this gift possibly be received if not by faith? If God were to say to us, salvation is yours, provided that you do so many good works, or provided that obey my law more than you disobey, or provided that you love me enough, or serve me enough, or climb this mountain, or make this pilgrimage, our give this alms… I think you get it. If being justified depends upon anything other than faith in Christ, then this salvation is not a gift to be received, but a wage to be earned. And if salvation is a wage to be earned, then the gospel is no gospel at all, for we are helpless sinners.  

This idea is not mine. Paul said this very thing in Romans 4:16: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all…” (Romans 4:16, ESV).



So I must ask, are you justified? Have your sins been pardoned and have you been clothed with the righteousness of Christ? Do you stand righteous before God? Stated differently, do you have faith in Christ?

This might seem like a strange question to ask of a group of people who have assembled in Jesus’ name on the Lord’s Day evening to offer up worship to God. But consider these things:

One, this audio is being recorded. Who knows who will listen to it in the future. Perhaps the Lord would use this teaching concerning justification to draw a sinner to repentance. If that is you — if the Spirit of God is using the word of God to convict you of sin and to draw you to faith in Christ, then turn from your sin truly and confess that Jesus is Lord through the waters of baptism. This will require you to find a church where the word of God is proclaimed and the ordinances of Christ are faithfully administered. Contact us if you need help finding such a church.

Two, there are children and young people present in this assembly. It is possible that one of these has listened to this teaching on justification, has understood the gospel for the first time, and has come to the realization that they are not Christains because their parents are Chridtians, but that they must turn from their sins to trust in Christ. Children and young people, do you have in Christ? Do you trust, not in your own good works, but in his good work, to make you righteous before God. Repent. Turn from your sin and say Jesus is Lord through the waters of baptism. You may speak to your parents or to me if you have further questions.

Three, I am aware that it is possible for a person to attend church for a very long time, and even to be a faithful member of the church, but to be lost in the sin, having been blind to the truth of the gospel for all those years. Some people practice religion but with pride in the heart. Though they profess to trust in Christ, in the heart they trust only in themselves. We should all be aware of this possibility. We should examine our hearts daily to drive away sin and pride, and to be sure that we are indeed in Christ, trusting only in him and in his finished work, for the forgiveness of our sins. 

Question: What is justification?

Answer: Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. 

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