The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. Perhaps some of you have heard that before. I want to take it a step further and say that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not only the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls, it is the doctrine on which every person stands or falls. I say this because the core issue in view when considering justification is, without a doubt, a question of supreme importance: how does a sinner come into a right and reconciled standing with a holy God?
As you can imagine, throughout the history of the Church many theologians and scholars have tried to answer this question, and because of this, the doctrine of justification quickly became one of the most debated points of theology. Examples abound: St. Augustine and the humanist Pelagius, Martin Luther and the scholar Erasmus, the Reformers and the Roman Catholics, or more currently, the recent controversy brought about by N.T. Wright and his New Perspective on Paul.
Though this has been debated throughout the ages, the Bible is quite clear on the answer: we’re justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.
I want to begin in Deuteronomy 6 to see the problem.
After God gave His law to the people Israel a second time as they were on the banks of the Jordan River, Moses told them in Deut. 6:25, “And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.” Moses knew the law represented a perfect Lawgiver and that just as God is righteous, so would Israel be if they kept it. But we know what happened don’t we? Israel not only didn’t keep the law, they rejected the law. They refused to obey God and went their own way. They therefore have a problem, they need a perfect righteousness to be accepted in God’s sight, but they don’t have it. And as our own hearts have shown us, Israel’s problem is not only Israel’s problem, it’s man’s problem. Ever since the fall we refuse to honor God as God in our lives and go our own way. Because of this we lack a righteousness that would put us in right standing with God.
So what are we to do? What can we do?
To answer this problem as we ought to I want to turn to the Bible to see four passages that give the remedy.
a) Genesis 15:5-6
“And God brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”
In context when we come to Genesis 15 we find ourselves in the middle of God unfolding His promise to Abraham. Abraham doubts God, thinks his servant will be his heir, God corrects him and continues to make His promise plain. Even though Abraham is old, God says he will be the father of a multitude and the nations will be blessed through him. The significance of this moment in 15:6 is that it clearly shows Abraham looking to the promise of God by faith, and then shows God counting that faith to Abraham as righteousness. This word ‘counted’ in English is the Hebrew word ‘chashav’ which is important because this word is a legal term used other times in the Old Testament when legal declarations were made. That God uses it to ‘count’ Abraham as righteous signifies that God made a legal, binding, and unchanging declaration about who Abraham was not because of what he did, but because of his faith in the promise. So we have the beginning of the unfolding of justification by faith alone.
b) Romans 4:1-5
It just so happens that Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 a few times in his letters. One of those moments is Romans 4:1-5, where he says “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”
In this portion of Romans 4 Paul in v1-3 points out that Abraham was indeed justified by faith and not by works of any kind. But in v4-5 and throughout the rest of chapter Paul states that this was not just a pattern present in Abraham’s life, it’s a pattern present for all men as well. Just as Abraham was not able to boast before God for any of his works, so too no man is able to boast before God for any works. And just as God counted Abraham as righteous by faith then, so too God will count (or legally declare) any man righteous by faith now if that faith in is His Son Jesus who justifies the ungodly, or saves sinners by His perfect work. This solves our Deut. 6:25 problem, and shows that we can be given a perfect righteousness before God through faith. But it doesn’t answer the question of how that righteousness is given to us and it doesn’t tell us what the source of that righteousness is. To see that we must move onto our next passage.
c) 2 Corinthians 5:19-21
“…in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
So what is the source of the righteousness in our justification? Jesus Christ is the source. In 2 Cor. 5:19-21 we see the glories of Jesus’ reconciling righteousness. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. How did God do this? By not imputing our sins to us and imputing them to Jesus as well as imputing the righteousness of Jesus to us, which reconciles us to God. This is a double imputation and a great exchange. Jesus, who never sinned receives our sin, and we who never had any righteousness receives His righteousness. So how are given a righteousness through faith?
John Calvin comments on this passage saying, “How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offenses but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. Now in the same way we are righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God’s judgment by our own works, but because we are judged in relation to Christ’s righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own.”
So, see that in this double imputation God does not just remove our sin and leave an empty void in us. He removes our sin and fills us with Christ’s righteousness at the moment of salvation (by grace through faith) and, as John Fesko says, “right then and there the believer, like Abraham, is counted righteous.”
d) Romans 4:23-25
“But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
This last reference is an important one, because too many people only speak of justification in terms of the cross and not the resurrection. Paul makes this point in this passage quoting Genesis 15:6 again saying the words “it was counted to him” were not only for Abraham, they’re for us as well. Then Paul goes on to speak of our faith in “Jesus…who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Paul is saying when Jesus rose from the grave, the resurrection was proof that the Father had accepted Jesus’ payment for sin and placed Jesus back into the His full favor. Since faith unites us to Christ, in both His death and resurrection, God’s approval of Christ results in God’s approval of all who are united to Christ. Therefore as Jesus was validated by His resurrection, so are all those united to Christ by faith, which means the final Day of Judgment to come has already been settled for the believer. So our justification not only involves our past and our present, it involved our future as well. In this sense Jesus was “raised for our justification.”
Remember, on this doctrine every man who has lived, is living, and who will live stands or falls before our holy God. Will you stand? Or will you fall?