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The Psychology of Justification

We are all aware of psychology as a mostly secular discipline rooted in a secular view of man and that which excludes God and his word. But psychology literally means the study of the soul. As Christians our psychology is best when we root in our theology. I want to demonstrate how the doctrine of justification transforms the soul’s way of thinking.

The Psychology of Our Age Confronted By The Law

To begin, we must understand that Paul’s doctrine of justification and the psychology that flows from it is quite opposed to the psychology of our day. Beginning in the 1980’s parents were told that the best way to raise their children was to build their self-esteem. This meant that parents should always seek ways to encourage and praise their children even if it completely disregarded reality. Kids didn’t need discipline and growth, but they needed emotional pats on the back and affirmation in all they did. Everyone is perfect in their own way. In this whole model of self-esteem and self-worth a key biblical notion was forgotten, sin. 

"Good works were never designed to be the evidence for why God should justify a sinner, rather, they are the evidence that God already has justified the sinner."

Paul’s view of self in the book of Romans is not that we all have too low of a view of self and God is wanting us to believe in ourselves, but rather his view of self is that we are desperately wicked and depraved (Romans 3:9-18). His whole point in the first three chapters of Romans is that the law condemns us all as sinners. We have all turned away from God and exchanged the truth about God for a lie (Rom. 1:25). The idea that we are good enough for ourselves and therefore God must be fine with us is entirely contradictory to Paul’s conclusion in Romans 3. The law shuts all our mouths because we realize that we do not measure up to God’s holy and perfect standard and thus are condemned by God’s judgment (Rom. 3:19). Since we are law breakers, God in his infinite justice and holiness must exact his righteous retribution of wrath.

The Psychology of a Conscience at Peace with God

If we are guilty, condemned, and waiting for the wrath of God, then we are in a place of great despair in ourselves. Paul has entrapped us with the thinking that we can do nothing for ourselves. No attempt at self-improvement would pay for our life of unrighteousness or would merit God’s acceptance. What we need is something outside of ourselves to save us. It must have nothing to do with us because we are wicked and rebellious sinners.

Paul’s remedy is the righteousness of God manifested apart from the law, in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). His thought moves from the condemned state of our soul to the free grace of God offered in Jesus Christ. It is specifically in the propitiation (satisfaction) of God’s righteous wrath on the cross of Jesus Christ where the removal of our guilt takes place. Not only is our sin imputed (counted) to Jesus Christ on the cross but also is his righteousness imputed to sinners who receive him by faith. Therefore, Luther can say, “Simul justus et peccator” or “at the same time just and a sinner”. Meaning that yes, we are guilty and condemned in ourselves, but God counts us righteous because He has freely bestowed on us the righteousness of his Son through faith. Jesus’ perfect law-keeping is exchanged for our law-breaking and we are therefore justified in God’s sight.  We are no longer his enemies but are the subjects of his steadfast love and kindness. Our minds are at peace with God and need not fear condemnation as we sin even now as Christians. Justification is the definitive declaration that though we sin in this life and are greatly grieved by its presence, we have a sure claim to the perfect righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ and can thus proceed in true repentance and hope for Christ’s return. 

Paul’s conclusion at the end of Romans 3 is greatly enlightening to this psychology of justification we are getting at. He rightly concludes that because justification is an act that happens outside of us and not done by the inherit goodness in ourselves, no one can boast. The way this justification is received is solely by a faith that rests and receives the finished work of Christ. Faith is not a virtue that God recognizes as the basis for justification, but rather the means of receiving justification. Faith cannot boast in itself but in the one it relies on. Therefore, the only boasting that we should do is in our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s psychology of justification is marked by a conscience at peace with God and the deep humility that comes from it.

The Psychology of Good Works

If we are desperately wicked and can do nothing to justify ourselves, then who needs good works? This is the question that Paul anticipates in Romans 6, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer is a firm “By no means!” Why? Because those who have taken Christ for their justification have taken him for all of his saving benefits including sanctification. No, our good works are not needed to improve or fulfill our justification, but they are necessary consequences of our justification. They are not for justification, but they are certainly present in the justified man or woman. I believe this is a hard distinction for us to keep clear and we often confuse the categories and begin to relate to God as if our justification depended on our works. Yet we must not make the error that works are useless. Good works are the proper response to justification. To put it another way, good works were never designed to be the evidence for why God should justify a sinner, rather, they are the evidence that God already has justified the sinner! As we are captivated by the free-grace of God in sending his Son for our justification we should be moved with gratitude to serve him fully. This is where the psychology of justification meets and motivates Christian acts of worship, holiness and charity. Let us all insist on never tiring our minds of this glorious truth!