When is a sinner justified?

A reader asked, When is a sinner justified—before the foundation of the world, at the cross, or during his lifetime?”

What is justification?

First, it’s important that we define the term justification. Allow me to cite from the 1689 Baptist Confession.

Those God effectually calls he also freely justifies (Ro 3:24; 8:30). He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them but by pardoning their sins and accounting and accepting them as righteous (Ro 4:5-8; Eph 1:7). He does this for Christ’s sake alone and not for anything produced in them or done by them (1Co 1:30-31; Ro 5:17-19).

By nature, we are sinners, who stand guilty before God because we have broken his law. Justification, then, is a two-part act of God. In the first part, God punishes Christ on the cross for crimes we committed. In the second, God accepts Jesus’s sinless life and sacrificial death on our behalf and declares us innocent.

Justification decreed and procured

Second, the Bible is clear about the timing of our justification, though I can understand why someone might be confused. Citing from the Confession again:

From all eternity God decreed to justify all the elect (Gal 3:8; 1Pe 1:2; 1Ti 2:6), and in the fullness of time Christ died for their sins and rose again for their justification (Ro 4:25).

Notice that God decreed our justification in the past. Nowhere does Scripture indicate he actually justified us before the world began.

You’ll also notice that Christ procured our justification by his death and resurrection. As Paul writes, He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Ro 4:25). Furthermore, he says, We have now been justified by his blood (Ro 5:9). But that’s only the first part of God’s two-act process of justification. God punished Christ on the cross for the crimes we committed, but when do we receive Christ’s righteousness and an innocent verdict?

Justified through faith

The Confession continues, Nevertheless, they are not justified personally until the Holy Spirit actually applies Christ to them at the proper time (Col 1:21-22; Tit 3:4-7).” It also states:

[God] imputes Christ’s active obedience to the whole law and passive obedience in his death as their whole and only righteousness by faith (Php 3:8-9; Eph 2:8-10). This faith is not self-generated; it is the gift of God (Jn 1:12; Ro 5:17).

Faith that receives and rests on Christ and his righteousness is the only instrument of justification (Ro 3:28).

The Holy Spirit applies. Faith is the instrument. In short, a sinner is not personally justified until God calls him and he believes. Consider Romans 3 (emphasis added).

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. (Romans 3:21-26)

I trust this helps.

Reply to hello@jeremysarber.com.