Let us endeavour to ascertain the meaning of the term justification. Many errors on this important subject may be expected to have arisen from the want of a clear view of the thing itself. Till we understand what justification is, we cannot affirm or deny any thing concerning it, but with great uncertainty.
It is not the making a person righteous by an inherent change from sin to righteousness, this is sanctification; which, though no less necessary than the other, yet is distinguished from it: Christ “is made unto us righteousness and sanctification.” The term is forensic, referring to the proceedings in a court of judicature, and stands opposed to condemnation. This is evident from many passages of Scripture, particularly the following: “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord.—The judgment was by one to condemnation; but the free gift is of many offences unto justification.—There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.—It is God that justifieth: who is he that condemneth?—He that believeth on him that sent me hath everlasting life; and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” If a prisoner who stands charged with a crime be convicted of it, he is condemned; if otherwise, he is acquitted, or justified.
But though it be true that the term is forensic, and stands opposed to condemnation, yet, as in most other instances in which the proceedings of God allude to those of men, they are not in all respects alike. He that is justified in an earthly court (unless it be for want of evidence, which cannot possibly apply in this case) is considered as being really innocent; and his justification is no other than an act of justice done to him. He is acquitted, because he appears to deserve acquittal. This, however, is not the justification of the gospel, which is “of grace, through the redemption of Jesus Christ.” Justification, in the former case, in proportion as it confers honour on the justified, reflects dishonour on his accusers; while, in the latter, the justice of every charge is admitted, and no dishonour reflected on any party except himself. Justification among men is opposed not only to condemnation, but even to pardon; for, in order to this, the prisoner must be found guilty, whereas, in justification, he is acquitted as innocent. But gospel justification, though distinguishable from pardon, yet is not opposed to it. On the contrary, pardon is an essential branch of it. Pardon, it is true, only removes the curse due to sin, while justification confers the blessing of eternal life; but, without the former, we could not possess the latter. He that is justified requires to be pardoned, and he that is pardoned is also justified. Hence a blessing is pronounced on him whose iniquities are forgiven; hence also the apostle argues from the non-imputation of sin to the imputation of righteousness; considering the blessedness of him to whom God imputeth not sin as a description of the blessedness of him to whom he imputeth righteousness without works. Finally, justification, at a human bar, prevents condemnation; but gospel justification finds the sinner under condemnation, and delivers him from it. It is described as a “passing from death to life.”
From these dissimilarities, and others which I doubt not might be pointed out, it must be evident, to every thinking mind, that though there are certain points of likeness, sufficient to account for the use of the term, yet we are not to learn the Scripture doctrine of justification from what is so called in the judicial proceedings of human courts, and, in various particulars, cannot safely reason from one to the other. The principal points of likeness respect not the grounds of the proceeding, but the effects of it. Believing in Jesus, we are united to him; and, being so, are treated by the Judge of all as one with him; his obedience unto death is imputed to us, or reckoned as ours: and we, for his sake, are delivered from condemnation as though we had been innocent, and entitled to eternal life as though we had been perfectly obedient.
Excerpt from: “Justification,” Sermon XVII in Sermons and Sketches.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 277–278). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.