The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone

"A right understanding of justification is absolutely crucial to the whole Christian faith."

When Martin Luther realized the truth of justification by faith alone, he became a Christian and overflowed with the new found joy of the gospel. The primary issue in the Protestant Reformation was a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over justification. If we are to safeguard the truth of the gospel for future generations, we must understand the truth of justification. Even today, a true view of justification is the dividing line between the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and all false gospels of salvation based on good works. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)

What is justification?

The Westminister Shorter Catechism (17th century) defines justification as: "An act of God's free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Q. 33). This is the basics of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide).

The Reformers insisted, on the basis of clear biblical texts, that justification (in the Greek, "to declare righteous," rather than "to make righteous") was a forensic (i.e., legal) verdict. In other words, whereas Rome maintained that justification was a process of making a bad person better, the Reformers argued that it was a declaration or pronouncement that had someone else’s righteousness (i.e., Christ’s) as its basis. Therefore, it was a perfect, once and-for-all verdict of right standing. (Michael Horton, The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney: http://www.mtio.com/articles/aissar81.htm)

How can a sinner be justified in the sight of God? He can only be justified if another man stands in his place and offers the perfect obedience, or righteousness, that God requires. This is what Jesus has done for the one who looks to him by faith. Jesus suffered the penalty of our sins throughout his earthly life culminating with his crucifixion on the cross. God the Father accepted Jesus' perfect sacrifice by raising him from the dead, securing the victory over sin and death. The sinner contributes nothing to his justification. The 19th century Scottish theologian and poet, Horatius Bonar, wrote, "Thy works, not mine, O Christ, speak gladness to this heart; they tell me all is done; they bid my fear depart."

It is by God's grace alone (sola gratia) that God justifies the sinner. God has every right to condemn the sinner, but he shows him mercy and shows him grace. Justification is through Christ alone (solus Christus), as it is the work of Christ--his life, death and resurrection--that serves as the judicial basis for the believer's verdict of righteousness. And the sinner is justified by faith alone (sola fide). In other words, it is never the obedience or good works of the sinner. Rather, it is that the sinner looks exclusively to the person and work of Christ to receive this verdict of righteousness rather than the verdict of condemnation that he deserves. These 3 points are the basics of justification by faith alone.

John Calvin, the 16th century 2nd generation reformer, explained that "unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God." It was for this reason that Calvin believed that justification was "the main hinge on which religion turns." It is no wonder that a 17th-century Reformed theologian, Johann Heinrich Alsted, one of the delegates to the Synod of Dort (1619), which gave us the “5 points of
Calvinism,” would later write that the doctrine of justification is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, “the article upon which the church stands or falls.”

Briefly, justification is a legal or forensic term, belonging to the law courts. Its opposite is condemnation. Justification is not simply forgiveness and pardon, for justification is not just negative -- the remission of a penalty or debt -- but justification is also positive -- the bestowal of a righteous status, the sinner's reinstatement in the favor and fellowship of God.

If justification is not pardon, neither is it sanctification. To justify is to declare or pronounce righteous, not to make righteous. But although justification (a new status) and regeneration (a new heart) are not identical, they are simultaneous. Thus, every justified believer has also been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and so put on the road to progressive holiness. Calvin said, "No one can put on the righteousness of Christ without regeneration."

Only because of justification, do we receive and enjoy the following 6 fruits and results, which are more precious than anything else in the world.

  1. We have peace with God (Rom. 5:1).

  2. We stand in grace (Rom. 5:2a).

  3. We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2b).

  4. We rejoice in our sufferings (Rom. 5:3-8).

  5. We shall be saved (from the wrath of God) through Christ (Rom. 5:9,10).

  6. We also rejoice in God (Rom. 5:11).
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