Paul clearly describes the act of justification in this way in Romans 3:
- The conscience of the sinner is through the Law placed before the judgment tribunal of God (who is a consuming fire and in whose sight not even the stars are pure), is accused, convicted, and condemned, so that it is afflicted and pressed down by a terrifying sense of the wrath of God, Rom. 3:19 KJV: “… that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God”.
- The heart thus contrite does not entertain Epicurean thoughts but anxiously seeks whether and how it can be freed from the comprehensive sentence of condemnation. From such thoughts come such passages as Ps. 130:3: “If You should mark iniquities ….”; Ps. 143:2: “Enter not into judgment …”; Rom. 7:24: “Who shall deliver me …?” Paul, by listing these points, shows that if anything can justify before God, it necessarily would be either the ethical system of the philosophers, according to the teachings of men, or the works of the divine law, because the Law has the promise of righteousness and eternal life. But Rom. 1:18 ff. shows that the teachings and ethical principles of philosophers cannot justify. And Rom. 3:20 says: “By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” For the Law shows and accuses the sin present even in our good works, because “the Law is weak through the flesh,” Rom. 8:3.
- Therefore God, “who is rich in mercy” [Eph. 2:4], has had mercy upon us and has set forth a propitiation through faith in the blood of Christ, and those who flee as suppliants to this throne of grace He absolves from the comprehensive sentence of condemnation, and by the imputation of the righteousness of His Son, which they grasp in faith, He pronounces them righteous, receives them into grace, and adjudges them to be heirs of eternal life. This is certainly the judicial meaning of the word “justification,” in almost the same way that a guilty man who has been sentenced before the bar of justice is acquitted.
The example of Bernard [of Clairvaux, 1091–1153] shows this clearly, because he was not involved in idle speculations but was exercising himself in the serious matter of repentance based on the doctrine and testimony of Paul. Gerson has some wonderful thoughts about the tribunal of God’s justice and the throne of His grace. For if we are discussing our common position before the tribunal of God, we are all subject to the tribunal of His justice; and because before Him no living person can be justified but all are condemned, therefore God has also set up another tribunal, the throne of grace. And the Son of God pleads for us the benefit of being called away from the tribunal of justice to the throne of grace. Therefore the Pharisee, because he was not willing to use the benefit of this calling, but wanted to enter into judgment before the tribunal of justice, was condemned. But the publican, who was first accused at the tribunal of justice, convicted and condemned there, later by faith called out to the throne of grace and was justified [Luke 18:9–14].
All these points so beautifully illustrating the doctrine of justification come from the correct linguistic understanding of the word “justification.”
Chemnitz, M., & Preus, J. A. O. (1999). Loci theologici (electronic ed.) (481–482). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.