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Justification by Faith Alone: The Heart and Essence of the Gospel


Martin Luther said that justification by faith alone is “the article upon which the church stands or falls” (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae).1 Charles Spurgeon, concurred and stated, “Any church which puts in the place of justification by faith in Christ another method of salvation is a harlot church.”2 The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the heart of the gospel. It is possible for Christians to be in error on a myriad of theological points and still be in a state of salvation, but if a person is wrong on the Bible’s teaching concerning how a person is justified, they cannot be in a right relationship with God. The doctrine of justification by faith alone answers the most basic theological question: how can sinful man be right or just with God? How is it possible for people who have broken God’s righteous law and are unholy to be right with the Holy One? John Murray expressed this idea well when he wrote:

In the last analysis sin is always against God, and the essence of sin is to be against God. The one who is against God cannot be right with God. For if we are against God then God is against us. It could not be otherwise. God cannot be indifferent to or complacent towards that which is the contradiction of himself. His very perfection requires the recoil of righteous indignation. And that is God’s wrath. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). This is our situation and it is our relation to God; how can we be right with him?3

The doctrine of justification by faith alone addresses this fundamental issue of how sinful man can be at peace with a holy God. This is why it is the heart and essence of the gospel.

Two needs exist in regard to sinful man having a relationship with God: 1) Man has broken God’s law; he is a sinner; and 2) Man is not perfectly righteous. Our justification in Christ meets both of these needs. The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives a succinct definition of justification by faith alone: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, whereby he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Question 33). Three key points concerning our justification are brought out in this definition: 1) It is a forensic or judicial act of God based upon his free grace in Christ; 2) In it our sins are forgiven; 3) In it we are accepted as righteous in the sight of God because of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us.

JUSTIFICATION IS A JUDICIAL DECLARATION OF GOD

It is important to recognize that God is the one that justifies. Justification is not something that we do; it is an act of God. Romans 4:5 states: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . .” Romans 8:33 states: “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies.” Both of these passages say that it is God who justifies. Louis Berkhof states concerning justification:

Justification is a judicial act of God, in which He declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that all the claims of the law are satisfied with respect to the sinner. It is unique in the application of the work of redemption in that it is a judicial act of God, a declaration respecting the sinner, and not an act or process of renewal, such as regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. While it has respect to the sinner, it does not change his inner life. It does not affect his condition, but his state…4

John Murray writes:

This truth that God justifies needs to be underlined. We do not justify ourselves. Justification is not our apology nor is it the effect in us of a process of self-excusation. It is not even our confession nor the good feeling that may be induced in us by confession. Justification is not any religious exercise in which we engage however noble and good that religious exercise may be. If we are to understand justification and appropriate its grace we must turn our thoughts to the action of God justifying the ungodly.5

When we speak of God being the one who justifies, the key idea is that justification is a legal declaration by God. In this regard, justification does not mean to make righteous or holy in an ethical sense. For example, when a judge justifies a person who is accused of a crime, he does not make that person an innocent or upright person; he simply declares what the person is. In the same way, justification by God is a legal declaration of what is true concerning a person who is in Christ.

In both the Old and New Testaments, the usage of the term “justify” contains this meaning of a judicial declaration. Deuteronomy 25:1 states: “If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. . . .” The judges did not make the people righteous or wicked; they simply declared what was the truth concerning the person under judgment. Proverbs 17:15 sets forth the same concept of justification: “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” Here again, a declarative idea is affirmed. If the term “justify” had the meaning of making righteous, this statement in Proverbs would not be true. It would be an honorable act to make the wicked righteous. In fact, this is what God does when he regenerates a person. However, the abomination in Proverbs 17:15 is the giving of a judgment that is contrary to the truth; to justify the wicked is to declare him righteous when, in fact, he is not righteous. Therefore, the term “justify” must have a declarative or judicial usage. The New Testament also uses the term “justify” in a declarative sense. Luke 7:29 says, “And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard this, they justified God. . . .” Obviously, the people and the tax-gatherers did not make God righteous; they acknowledged the righteous or just actions of God. They declared that God was just. These passages demonstrate the that the meaning of justification with regard to our salvation is that it is a legal declaration. They also show that the term “justification” does not mean to make upright or righteous.

The legal nature of justification is also seen in the term being contrasted with condemnation. In Deut. 25:1 and Prov. 17:15, justify and condemn are the opposites of each other. Just as “condemn” does not mean to make wicked, “justify” does not mean to make good. Romans 8:33, 34 also employs this same contrast between justify and condemn: “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns. . . ?” This passage also emphasizes the idea of a judicial declaration. It is the rebuttal against an accusation that may be brought against the elect of God. The answer to that accusation is that God’s judgment is final. God’s declaration that a person is righteous stands against every accusation. It is a legal or judicial act of God not an inward work in which a person is made righteous (see also 1 Kings 8:32; Matthew 12:37; Romans 5:16). John Murray writes:

This is what is meant when we insist that justification is forensic. It has to do with a judgment given, declared, pronounced; it is judicial or juridical or forensic. The main point of such terms is to distinguish between the kind of action which justification involves and the kind of action involved in regeneration. Regeneration is an act of God in us; justification is a judgment of God with respect to us. The distinction is like that of the distinction between the act of a surgeon and the act of a judge. The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us. That is not what a judge does – he gives a verdict regarding our judicial status. If we are innocent he declares accordingly.6

HOW GOD IS ABLE TO DECLARE THE BELIEVER RIGHTEOUS

Since Deuteronomy 25:1 and Proverbs 17:15 both make the point that a righteous judge will only proclaim a judgment that is in accordance with the truth about an individual, how can God, the ultimate righteous judge, make a legal declaration that a person who has broken his law is righteous? The answer to this question is found in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. The ground of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. The Scriptures teach that when a person believes in Christ, Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law of God is imputed or credited to him. Romans 4:1-8 is one of the more important passages in the New Testament that propounds this truth. After setting forth some critical points concerning justification in Romans 3:21-31, Paul gives two examples from the Old Testament that demonstrate that justification is a legal declaration that has its foundation in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and work of atonement. First, Paul emphasizes that justification is a free gift and that an individual’s so-called good works are not the basis of his justification: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ (Rom. 4:1-3). When Abraham believed God, righteousness was reckoned to him. The Greek word translated as “reckoned” is elogisthe (Aorist passive of logizomai). This word has the meaning of reckoning to one’s account just like an accountant would enter an amount in an account book. The New International Version translates this Greek word with this accounting idea: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Paul continues this thought in verses 4 and 5: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . .” Paul makes a simple point concerning wages and obligation. If a person contracts to work for a certain wage and fulfills the contract, then he is owed that wage by his employer. The employer does not pay him that wage as a favor, but pays it as an obligation that is owed. Paul states that when God justifies a sinner it is by no means an obligation or debt that is owed the sinner because of that sinner’s works. Justification is not on the basis of an individual’s personal righteousness; the basis of justification is the legal crediting of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner, a crediting that is received by faith alone. Romans 4:5 states: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . .” Notice that God justifies the ungodly. It is not that a person makes himself righteous through a series of pious acts so that he has enough personal merit to be declared righteous by God. God justifies a sinner on the basis of Christ’s righteousness when he is still ungodly. God reckons the person as just or righteous because of the obedience of Christ credited to him. R. C. Sproul writes concerning this: “By imparting or imputing Christ’s righteousness to us sinners, God reckons us as just. It is ‘as if’ we were inherently just. But we are not inherently just. We are ‘counted’ or ‘reckoned’ just by imputation.”7 John Calvin said it this way:

Therefore, “to justify” means nothing else than to acquit of guilt him who was accused, as if his innocence were confirmed. Therefore, since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.8

Martin Luther summarized this idea in the phrase simul iustus et peccator (“at the same time just and sinner”). We are just or right before God because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us and received by faith alone while at the same time sin remains in us. Romans 4:6-8 continues this thought and adds the idea of forgiveness for sins: “. . . just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.’” Paul continues to drive home the point that God reckons righteousness apart from works and uses the same accounting language in regard to the forgiveness of sins. The last phrase of verse 8 uses the same Greek word that is used previously in the passage for “reckon” or “credit” (logizomai). This passage supports the idea that justification is a legal act in which the sinner is declared righteous by God based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sins based on Christ’s work of sacrifice on the cross. Therefore, two aspects of Christ’s work are applied in our justification. Christ satisfied all the demands of God’s justice in his perfect obedience to the law of God during his life. It is this perfect obedience or righteousness that is imputed to us when we believe in him. Christ also satisfied all the demands of God’s justice against the law-breaker in his work of atonement on the cross. The sins of the believer were imputed to Christ and he took the penalty due those sins. R. C. Sproul writes, “The atonement is vicarious because it is accomplished via imputation. Christ is the sin-bearer for his people, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) who takes away (expiates) our sin and satisfies (propitiates) the demands of God’s justice. The cross displays both God’s justice (in that he truly punishes sin) and his grace (because he punishes sin by providing a substitute for us).”9 2 Corinthians 5:21 sets forth both of these elements of justification concisely: “He made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Robert Reymond summarizes this idea:

That the righteousness of justification is the God-righteousness of the divine Christ himself, which is imputed or reckoned to us the moment we place our confidence in him (see justification as a finished act in Rom. 5:1 – ‘having been justified’), is amply testified to when the Scriptures teach that we are justified (1) in Christ (Isa. 45:24-25; Acts 13:39; Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 2:17; Phil. 3:9), (2) by Christ’s death work (Rom. 3:24-25; 5:9; 8:33-34), (3) not by our own but by the righteousness of God (Isa. 61:10; Rom. 1:17; 3:21-22; 10:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9) and (4) by the righteousness and obedience of Christ (Rom. 5:17-19). In short, the only ground of justification is the perfect God-righteousness of Christ that God the Father imputes to every sinner who places his confidence in the obedience and satisfaction of his Son. Said another way, the moment the sinner, through faith in Jesus Christ, turns away from every human resource and rests in Christ alone, the Father imputes his well-beloved Son’s preceptive (active) obedience to him and accepts him as righteous in his sight.10

If you trust in Christ alone as your Savior, the promise of Scripture is that you are forgiven and accepted in God’s sight as righteous, not because of your own righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to you and received by faith alone.

JUSTIFICATION IS BY FAITH ALONE (SOLA FIDE)

The Scriptures emphasize repeatedly that justification is not by law-keeping or human works, but by faith alone. This is the key point of the Reformation phrase sola fide (faith alone). Robert Reymond writes, “With a gloriously monotonous regularity Paul pits faith against all law-keeping, viewed as its diametrical opposite. Whereas the latter relies on human effort of the law-keeper looking to himself to render satisfaction before God and earn merit, the former repudiates and looks entirely away from self and all human effort to the work of Jesus Christ, who alone by his obedient life and sacrificial death rendered full satisfaction before God and men.”11 This principle is set forth in many passages. Observe how strongly the following passages enunciate this point:

Romans 3:20-22: “. . . because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. . . .”

Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

Romans 4:2-5: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. for what does the Scripture say? ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. . . .”

Romans 4:13, 14: “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be the heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified. . . .”

Romans 10:4: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

Galatians 2:16: “. . . nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.”

Galatians 2:21: “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

Galatians 3:6: “Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Galatians 3:11: “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’”

Philippians 3:9: “. . .and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. . . .”

These verses demonstrate that the Scriptures teach that man is justified by faith alone and not by the works of the Law. While the exact phrase “faith alone” does not appear in these verses, the concept is clearly there. In these statements, the Apostle Paul is declaring that faith is the sole instrument of justification. Roman Catholic apologists have argued that since Paul does not use the exact phrase “faith alone” when speaking of justification, that it is improper to hold to this concept. At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther answered this criticism:

Note. . . whether Paul does not assert more vehemently that faith alone justifies than I do, although he does not use the word alone (sola), which I have used. For he who says: Works do not justify, but faith justifies, certainly affirms more strongly that faith justifies than does he who says: Faith alone justifies. . . . Since the apostle does not ascribe anything to [works], he without doubt ascribes all to faith alone.”12

John Calvin also states that the concept of “faith alone” is taught even though the term“alone” does not directly appear with “faith:”

Now the reader sees how fairly the Sophists today cavil against our doctrine, when we say that man is justified by faith alone. They dare not deny that man is justified by faith because it recurs so often in Scripture. But since the word ‘alone’ is nowhere expressed, they do not allow this addition to be made. Is it so? But what will they reply to these words of Paul where he contends that righteousness cannot be of faith unless it be free? How will a free gift agree with works? . . . Does not he who takes everything from works firmly enough ascribe everything to faith alone. What, I pray, do these expressions mean: ‘His righteousness has been manifested apart from the law’; and, ‘Man is freely justified’; and, ‘Apart from the works of the law’?”13

JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE EXCLUDES ALL HUMAN BOASTING

Since justification is by faith alone and not by law-keeping, no one can boast that his salvation came because of his works or personal righteousness. That Justification is by faith alone means that the one believing is not looking to any human resource, work, or ability for salvation; the believer looks only to Christ’s work of salvation, a work which accomplished a complete satisfaction for all the needs of salvation before God.

Many Scriptures support this idea. For example:

Romans 3:27, 28: “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.”

Romans 11:6: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.”

1 Corinthians 1:28-31: “. . . and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by his doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

Romans 4:16: “For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace. . . .”

Robert Reymond comments on Romans 4:16:

I recall on one occasion how shocked I was to hear a well-known, highly regarded preacher of the gospel say: ‘I don’t know why salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ. God just declared that that is the way it is going to be, and we have to accept it because God said it.’ I was shocked, I say, because this preacher should have known why salvation is by faith. He should have known because Paul expressly declared: ‘[Salvation] comes by faith, in order that it may be by grace’ Rom 4:16).”14

If justification were not by faith alone and human merit was a part of justification in any degree, then salvation would not be by grace alone. If man contributed to his salvation through his works, then he would have reason to boast before God. Salvation by grace and salvation by works are totally incompatible. Since salvation is purely of God’s grace, then justification is by faith alone, a faith by which the believer totally abandons all trust and reliance in himself and relies solely on Christ’s accomplished work.

Charles Hodge summarizes the doctrine of justification with six crucial points:

  1.  [Justification is] an act, and not, as sanctification, a continued and progressive work.
  2. It is an act of grace to the sinner. In himself he deserves condemnation when God justifies him.
  3. As to the nature of the act, it is, in the first place, not an efficient act, nor an act of power. It does not produce any subjective change in the person justified. It does not effect a change of character, making those good who were bad, those holy who were unholy. That is done in regeneration and sanctification. In the second place, it is not a mere executive act, as when a sovereign pardons a criminal, and thereby restores him to his civil rights, or to his former status in the commonwealth. In the third place, it is a forensic, or judicial act, the act of a judge, not of a sovereign. That is, in the case of the sinner, or, in foro Dei, it is an act of God not in his character of sovereign, but in his character as judge. It is a declarative act in which God pronounces the sinner just or righteous, that is, declares that the claims of justice, so far as he is concerned, are satisfied, so that he cannot be justly condemned, but is in justice entitled to the reward promised or due to perfect righteousness.
  4. The meritorious ground of justification is not faith; we are not justified on account of our faith, considered as a virtuous or holy act or state of mind. Nor are our works of any kind the ground of justification. Nothing done by us or wrought in us satisfies the demands of justice, or can be the ground or reason of the declaration that justice as far as it concerns us is satisfied. The ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ, active and passive, i. e., including his perfect obedience to the law as a covenant, and his enduring the penalty of the law in our stead and on our behalf.
  5. The righteousness of Christ is in justification imputed to the believer. That is, is set to his account, so that he is entitled to plead it at the bar of God, as though it were personally and inherently his own.
  6. Faith is the condition of justification. That is, so far as adults are concerned, God does not impute the righteousness of Christ to the sinner, until and unless, he (through grace), receives and rests on Christ alone for salvation.15

The believer in Christ, justified before God through faith in Christ’s work may sing in the words of Horatius Bonar:

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.

Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
No other work, save thine, no other blood will do;
No strength, save that which is divine, can bear me safely through.

Augustus Toplady adds to this chorus of praise to God’s “grace alone” salvation:

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, My person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

__________

Works Cited

1 R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 18.
2 Carter, Spurgeon At His Best, 116.
3 Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied, 117.
4 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 513.
5 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 118.
6 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 121.
7 Sproul, Faith Alone, 102.
8 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.3.
9 Sproul, Faith Alone, 104.
10 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 746-747.
11 Reymond, Paul: Missionary Theologian, 425.
12 Martin Luther, What Luther Says, edited by Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 2:707-708.
13 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.19.
14 Reymond, Paul: Missionary Theologian, 428.
15 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1981), 3:117, 118.

Next article in this series: The Sixteenth Century Debates on Justification

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.