Court dramas can be captivating. Perry Mason, Murder She Wrote, and Law and Order captivated television viewers for seasons. The intrigue and suspense generally kept the viewer watching to the end.
In such dramas, a defendant is brought before a judge. The defendant’s lawyer pleads his case. He presents evidence, calls witnesses, and seeks to clear the defendant’s name. Based on the arguments, the jury has to make a decision as to whether the defendant is guilty or not. If the jury determines that the defendant is not guilty, the judge declares the defendant “Not guilty!” He justifies him and the defendant is relieved.
Perhaps what intrigues us about television court drama is that it reminds us of real-life court scenes. Go one step further and it reminds us of guilty humanity in God’s court. So, how does guilty humanity fare in God’s court? God answered that for us at the empty tomb. It was humanity’s “real life court scene.” When Jesus rose, God justified all sinners; that is, He declared the world “not guilty.”
This is called “objective justification.” It is something God has done outside of you. The fact that justification is done outside of you is what makes it “objective.” It does not depend upon you, your feelings, your works, or your faith.
There are some who object to this. “That can’t be,” they say. “That’s not right. To be sure, Jesus paid for the sins of all on the cross, but He didn’t justify all sinners. That would mean all people go to heaven, whether or not they have faith. No. Justification is a reality only when believed.”
It is true that only those who believe in Jesus go to heaven, but does that mean justification is dependent upon faith? That is, does it become a reality only after it is believed? Or is justification dependent upon God’s declaration that all sinners are not guilty? That is, is it a reality already before it is believed?
Let’s answer that by looking at the first question above: Is justification dependent upon faith? If it is, what happens when your faith is weak? At such times, your conscience is troubled by some sin; and you feel that you have sinned away grace. Your life is full of affliction; and you feel that God is not for you but against you. You are in your last days; and you feel that God cannot accept you because of your past. There are times in life like this when we do not feel like we have much faith, if any at all.
At such times, if justification is a reality only when you feel you have faith, you are in trouble. You are because you will wonder if you have been sorry enough; if you feel enough faith; if you have faith at all. The bottom line, you will wonder if justification is a reality for you.
There are no “ifs” about it. Justification is a reality for you. It is because justification is a reality even before you believe it. It’s a reality based in the fact that God justified the world when Jesus rose. “[Jesus] was … raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25, emphasis added). That is, on Easter, God declared all sinners “not guilty.” “All have sinned … and are justified freely by God’s grace” (Romans 3:23–24, emphasis added). All is inclusive—that means, you, too. No one is excluded—not even you.
It all goes to say that you don’t have to look to your faith for justification to be a reality. It already is a reality. You are included among those God has declared “not guilty.” It has been done outside of you at the empty tomb. What’s been done outside of you, God brings to you and makes your own. Through His Word, God declares because of Jesus that you are “not guilty” and you are “justified,” since “through one Man’s obedience the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (Romans 5:18). By that same Word, God also creates faith in us to believe what Jesus has done to save us and “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).Timothy Bartels is pastor of Saved By Grace Lutheran Church in Gresham, Oregon.