A short definition of justification is "the act of making someone right with God." Justification takes place when God declares those who place their faith in Christ to be righteous. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." In other words, Jesus became our substitute on the cross so that we could be made "just" or right with God. We were guilty, but God has declared us righteous.
Romans 3:22-24 teaches that "the righteousness of God [comes] 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." Our justification comes to us freely, because of the price that Jesus paid on our behalf. God extends this grace to sinners and is "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (verse 26).
Theologians speak of three distinct types of justification—positional, progressive, and perfective. Positional justification is the "legal standing" we have been granted in Christ. It's what the verses above concern: we are justified when we trust in Christ. From that moment on, God sees us as righteous.
Although we have been declared righteous, the fact is that we still sin, even after we've been saved. That's where progressive justification comes in. Progressive justification (or sanctification) is the ongoing process of being made just by the Lord. "But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day" (Proverbs 4:18). It involves a believer becoming more and more like Christ. This is not something we do, but something He does. We perform good works as He empowers us (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 9:8).
Perfective justification is the final step. The progressive process catches up with the positional decree, and the believer is made righteous in practice as well as in name. This sinless perfection will be ours when we enter eternity with the Lord. At that time, our justification will be complete, and we will dwell with Him forever apart from sin.
Taking sinners to heaven is God's business, and it is only possible through the sacrifice of Christ. It is "one act of righteousness [performed by Christ that] leads to justification and life for all men" (Romans 5:18). Jesus paid the price. We enjoy the peace He gives, both now and eternally (Romans 5:1).
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