Justification is declaring somebody to be innocent or in the right. All Christians believe that God declares true Christians righteous. Justification means that the sinner is acquitted or declared not guilty. More importantly, for Christians it has the additional meaning of deserving Heaven.

Justification is not forgiveness but is the result of forgiveness. You cannot be justified unless you are forgiven first for that would be not forgiving but condoning. Forgiveness is saying, “I am going to treat you as if you are not guilty”, and justification is saying, “I take away your guilt in my eyes. You are not guilty anymore but are holy and righteous”. Some say that justification is not forgiveness but the two go together and are two halves of the same coin so forgiveness is not a result of justification.

Christians disagree about the nature of justification, and whether the deserving or justification is imputed and not real or if it is real.

Some say it is God pretending that a sinner is really not a sinner at all on account of Jesus obeying in the sinner’s place. This pictures justification like snow covering over a manure heap. There is no change in the sinner. This might appear to not really be justification but a mere legal fiction but justification is a legal term and if a legal system allows it, it is justification legally but not morally for the person is still bad. But it has to be what the apostle meant by justification for even God cannot make you a good person if you have sinned for the sins still have been committed. All he can do is declare you good.

Catholics say that justification is being declared righteous because you really are righteous. You can read about it in the excellent Anglican book on justification by faith alone, The Great Acquittal. “Justification is no legal fiction, but God’s righteous declaration that the believer is within the covenant” (page 31). If it is not a legal fiction then it is a declaration of innocence that is true to the facts or it could be a declaration that a person is not good but is considered good for the sake of the covenant which is not that different from a legal fiction. These theories fit Christ’s declaration that he was the truth for the legal fiction has connotations of lying. The fact of the matter is, that despite many Protestant theologians rejecting a legal fiction interpretation that is what they believe in. To impute the righteousness of another man to a person is to declare the latter to own the righteousness of the former. But he doesn’t own it, so it is a legal fiction. Forensic imputation = legal fiction.

The view that Christ’s merits are imputed to you implies that there must have been an atonement sacrifice for somebody had to earn your salvation for you and be punished for you for you to get away with your sins. The view that God just declares you good though you are not does not unless you believe that God has to punish sin because he can’t let it go unpunished by taking it out on somebody innocent to get you off. However when he just forgives you it makes no sense for him to punish anybody else.

The only way a sinner can be called just is by way of a legal fiction. If you sin all your good deeds are sins for they are done in a spirit of attachment to sin.

For many the doctrine that salvation comes by faith alone is surmised from scripture like the Trinity. That is true, but there are verses that teach it plainly.

It is important that we understand that when Paul spoke of justification or declared righteous he never said that a person who is justified is really righteous. Justification for him did not mean to turn a person into a good person but acquitting the sinner – overlooking the person’s unworthiness. Justification is not about what state a person is in but about their status or standing with God and Paul illustrates that by emphasising that no room at all for any boasting is involved in getting justified for after it either.


The Bible says that the saved can do good works. If all are sinful as Paul says then how can this be? There is no evidence in the Bible of the doctrine of free will except in freedom to sin. Perhaps good works are just works that God programs people to do so they are not really our works at all? This is how we can be entirely bad and do good works. Paul said in Romans 9 that God does program people but never does the Bible actually say the good works are the result of programs.

Luther took the position that the good works even of the saved were bad. He held that if you are saved you will do good works meaning sinful works that look good and result in a lot of good. For example, the unsaved person will do more damage in the world than the saved. The saved person though just as sinful will not be as inclined to do the sins that do damage and his or her sin will be mostly in the heart. I believe this is the biblical solution. The Bible then may not mean that good works are good as in sinless but as in having good results and they further the good plans God has for the world.

It could be the works are not really good but God credits them as good and Jesus makes up for the imperfections in them by proxy. So they are not good works as far as we do them but they are good works as far as God sees them. When the Bible calls the works of the saved good works it means good from God’s perspective.


Forgiveness is the state where God has stopped holding your sins against you.  It is neutral in the sense that being clean is not enough to make you truly good.  Justification is the doctrine of how you become good in the sight of God.  For Catholics you have to do good works.  For Protestants, Jesus has done the good works for you.

The view that justification is imputed to the sinner without changing her or him does not mean the sinner is getting no help to change. Giving real righteousness and imputed righteousness are compatible. How? Because they are two different kinds of justification.  Because it is like, “You are bad but I cleanse you of your sins so you are not bad in my eyes anymore but are vindicated. But I will ALSO give you the tools to be good and I call you good because you are a better person.” If so then we should follow 2 Corinthians 5:21 and not consider justification to be a legal fiction.

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