This article was first published in booklet form in 1993 and is available on request through the Contact page.
JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
MARTIN LUTHER said: “This is the truth of the Gospel. It is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.” He was a colorful man, Luther. “If this article be once lost”, he said, “then is all true Christian doctrine lost.”
He was referring to the doctrine of “Justification by Faith.”
John R.W. Stott, a contemporary writer, says, “No one has understood Christianity who has not understood this word.”
The word he refers to is the word “justified.”
If great Christian leaders both of yesterday and today assert the centrality and incalculable importance of this doctrine, is it not both astonishing and tragic that we hear of it so rarely these days – if at all? If, as Luther says, “this is the truth of the Gospel,” then we may legitimately ask, “Whatever happened to the Gospel?”
I have been alarmed how few Christians really understand this “principal article of all Christian doctrine.” Even sadder is the fact that many today have no interest in learning – which may be, of course, why it isn’t preached. The Apostle Paul warns of a day when:
…men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).
Those days, it seems to me, are now here.
May I ask you do you know what this doctrine is? Do you know what “justified” means? Maybe you are thrilled by it. Perhaps you do lift up your heart over and over again with overflowing praise to God at the wonder of grace that you – you of all people – are justified in his sight? If not, that may well not be your fault, but are you interested to learn?
If you have a pastor who “beats it into your head continually“, thank God for him. He is a faithful servant. If not, then please read this article carefully. It may require some effort of concentration but I hope it will be worth it. If necessary, read the article in small segments! Maybe it will help you to read it more than once (or at least parts of it). If you are serious about your faith look up the Bible verses for yourself. This could be one of the most significant things you have ever done.
The truth of justification by faith is declared first, in Genesis, in the story of Abraham – Genesis chapter 15, and verse 6, and this will be our text,
He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abraham believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.
The words emphasized describe justification by faith. This statement is taken up again in the New Testament in several places especially when this great truth is being expounded. (See Romans 4:3 &23, Gal 3:6)
The word “justification” (or its verb “justify”) occurs 39 times in the New Testament. What does it mean?
Let me give you some brief definitions and then we will seek to open up the subject by a series of questions and answers.
a) To be justified is to be put right with God. It is to be declared righteous before a holy God, through faith in Jesus Christ. It may help you to know that the word “just” and the word “righteous” in the Greek of the New Testament are the same. So, when we talk about “justify” we mean “righteous-ify,” but there is no such word as “righteous-ify” in English so translators use “justify.” It is a legal concept.
b) To be justified is the opposite of to be condemned. It is to be treated just-as-if-I’d never sinned. That little play on words helps us, perhaps, to remember half of it. Half of it? Yes; it is even more than that as we shall see. Keep reading! It is to be counted righteous. It is the opposite of being condemned. It is to be counted good when in fact you are bad.
Do you know for sure that you are justified before God? You cannot face a more important question.
We shall try to understand it better by the following series of questions and answers:
Why do we need to be justified?
Answer: because we are guilty sinners and God must punish guilty sinners.
The unjustified sinner stands condemned. Unless that changes before he dies, he will one day (the Judgment Day) be sent out from the gracious presence of God forever. He will forfeit Heaven and be sent to Hell. Now you probably don’t hear much today about Judgment Day and Hell. These subjects are very unpopular (surprising?) and denied by neglect. Little wonder “Justification” has gone the same way. If there is no Judgment and no Hell, why do we need to be justified? But there is and we do.
Obviously even Abraham needed to be justified. He had no righteousness of his own, or if he had it was not enough. Now by the world’s standards Abraham was a good man. He worshiped God, he prayed, he was brave, he was generous, he tithed, he was successful, he did everything he could to get on well with his neighbours. We go through his life, and he seems to have been one of the best. Nevertheless, he was not righteous in the sight of God. The Bible says “no one is righteous” – not even Abraham (Romans 3:10 & 23).
You see, we have a tendency to compare ourselves with the worst in order to justify ourselves. We read about the mad axe-man or the child abuser and we say, “Well, I have never done anything like that, so I must be good.” We list all our good works and try to justify ourselves, like the Pharisees used to do.
But God compares us not with the worst of men, but with the best man, the only truly good man…the one man who lived a life without sin, and that man was Jesus Christ, and He is the standard.
A student at college or university may take the dumbest person, the most semi-literate, look at his papers and say, “I have done better than him so I am sure to pass.”
But the professors say, “No, that is not the standard. This is the standard. You have to achieve this to pass.”
And God says, “You want to get into heaven by your own efforts? You want to justify yourself? Here is the standard, Jesus of Nazareth.”
And we all know, if we have any sense or perception at all, that we fall far, far short of that beautiful life. That is why the Bible sums it up and says we are all sinners – Abraham, you, and me.
Do you know that the worst sins are those sins against God? Sometimes we ignore those altogether and do not even count them as sins, we just look at our relationships with people. We may think that murder and adultery are the worst sins, but if you turn to the Ten Commandments you will find that the first four relate to our duties toward God, not people.
Jesus said that God’s Law is summed up in this way; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
Do you not agree that none of us have come anywhere near keeping that law? I know I haven’t. Not even for one day. Do you know that God’s requirement is that we live each moment of each day for His glory? Little wonder the Bible says: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
Why did Abraham need to be justified? Because God looks not only upon acts, but upon attitudes; not only upon works, but words; not only upon what we do and say, but what we fail to do and say; not only our relationship with our families and neighbours, but with Him. Do we live for His glory? And Abraham was guilty, and you and I are guilty. He needed desperately to be justified and he could not do it himself for he had no righteousness to offer, neither do you and I.
Does “to be justified” mean the same as “to be forgiven?”
Answer: It includes forgiveness but involves MUCH MORE. (In the same way SALVATION includes justification but involves much more [election, regeneration, the gift of the Holy Spirit, assurance, adoption, sanctification, heaven, a glorious future inheritance in the New Heaven and the New Earth]).
When God justifies the ungodly sinner, his sin is pardoned, yes, but also his heart is cleansed and the sinner is acquitted. That is more, isn’t it? The slate is wiped clean. There is nothing against his name. It is just-as-if-he’d never sinned. But there is yet more. He is even counted good. Isn’t that amazing? Many Christians never grasp this truth.
It is as if a man is in terrible financial debt. He cannot possibly pay, but someone comes along and not only wipes out all his debts (wonderful itself), but also credits to his account so much money that anything he could ever want or need is there in plenty.
It is as if a terrible criminal, who is in court on trial for his life, having begged for mercy, finds himself not only pardoned and set free, but honored. Instead of being condemned he is commended. Of course, we would say that could never happen. It would be unjust. Precisely.
If your Gospel does not seem to you an apparent miscarriage of justice (a guilty offender going free and actually being honored, and an innocent Man condemned) then it is probably not God’s Gospel! This is what justification is. You walk into the courts of God, a guilty sinner, with guilt for offenses since your earliest memory that would stretch around the world. Every one of them is a capital charge for the Bible says, “The soul who sins will die,” and, “The wages of sin is death” (Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 6:23). Yet because of Jesus Christ you come out not only NOT GUILTY, but COMMENDED for Jesus’ sake.
No wonder Luther said it is the very heart of the Gospel. No wonder John Stott said if you have not understood this, you have never understood Christianity.
How can a righteous God justify an unrighteous sinner?
Answer: Jesus Christ.
What a crucial question this is. So many think the great question is how can they (educated, scientific, sophisticated) accept God?
NO! The question is how can God (Holy, Righteous, the Source and Upholder of all justice, whose Word cannot be broken) possibly accept them, guilty as they undoubtedly are? How can God be, as the Scripture puts it, “Just,” and “The Justifier,” at the same time? (Romans 3:26) Surely to do such a thing would demean His integrity. How can He do it?
I want to tell you something. It is not easily done. There are some people who portray the forgiveness of God and the love of God as if this were an easy thing. “Forgiveness,” said one, glibly, “is His business.” Oh, they have not even begun to understand what it cost the Almighty to make this justification possible. There is really no such thing as “cheap grace.”
Can a judge faced with a condemned murderer simply, from the kindness of his heart, dismiss the case? No, he must uphold the law. The price must be paid.
The Lord Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, came and paid the price. God the Father gave His Son and sent Him into this world to live a righteous life and then to set His face steadfastly to go to the cross. There on the cross of Calvary He took all our sins upon His sinless soul and paid the penalty to set us free. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
And do you know what God also did? God took Christ’s righteousness and applied it and credited it to all who will believe in Him. Sweet exchange. Genesis 15:6 says “He credited it to him as righteousness.” What “it”? What righteousness can God credit? There has to be something that He can credit to a sinner.
Your kind uncle may say, “I credit to your account a million dollars.” But does he have a million dollars?
When God says “I have credited a righteous life to your account instead of your unrighteous life.” Whose life? Answer: Jesus’ life. Have you ever thought why Jesus lived 33 years before He went to the Cross?
One of the reasons, perhaps the most important reason, was so that there would be a human life that came into this sinful world with all its darkness and its temptations, its sorrows and its sins, and lived without sin. A life that, in a crooked world would walk straight. A life that, in a dark world, would walk in the light. A life that, in a rebellious world, would perfectly conform to the will of God. A man who would always seek first the Kingdom of God; a man of love, a man of compassion, a man of truth, a man of integrity, a man of purity – unblemished.
His life is credited to the believer. Oh yes, sweet exchange. My sinful life judged in Christ; Christ’s righteous life credited to me. God sees the justified sinner, not only just-as-if-he’d never sinned but as if he’d lived the perfect life of Christ.
How do we receive this righteousness?
Answer: By faith, and by faith alone.
Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. It is the only way, you see. Belief, faith.
NOT WORKS…Justification is not a reward for our works. Abraham had those. He journeyed a thousand miles in response to God’s call, all the way from Chaldea to Canaan (Iraq to Israel). That would not get him into heaven and take away his sins. He was a peaceable man. When his servants were quarreling with his nephew’s servants he said, “Let us not have quarreling.” He was a lover and a maker of peace.
He was a generous man. He said to his nephew, and he had no cause to do this, “Look, we will have to separate. You choose, and wherever you want, I will take the rest.” And Lot took the best. Abraham did not complain, and when his nephew fell into bad company with the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and was carried off into captivity Abraham, instead of gloating and saying, “Well, that serves him right,” or just saying, “Well, there is nothing that I can do, poor Lot, poor Lot,” he raised an army and went to his rescue.
Oh, if works could have gotten somebody into heaven and justified him, it would have been this man.
NOT RELIGION…Wherever he pitched his tent he always built his altar. He never missed church, and he offered sacrifices on that altar according to the Word of God. He did it God’s way. He was a man of prayer. He talked with God. Commendable though this was, his religion could not take away his sins and justify him.
NOT CEREMONIES… the mysterious type of Christ (or Christ himself), Melchizedek, King of Peace and Righteousness, brought out bread and wine. And Abraham took the bread and wine and gave him a tenth of all he owned. Later he was circumcised, the sign of his covenant relationship with God. But those ceremonies could not justify him.
There are people walking this earth who think that they are justified, counted right with God, because they have been baptized, either as a baby or as an adult. There are people in church who think they are justified because they take the bread and wine of communion, or because they join the church. It is right to take communion, it is right to be baptized, it is right to join a church, but those things can never take away sin. “He believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Faith. (For the story of Abraham’s life, see Genesis, chapters 12-25.)
So, when we turn to the New Testament we read in Scripture after Scripture that we are saved through faith alone.
Romans 3:20, No-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law . . .v 22, This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe . . .v 26, (He is) the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. . .v 28, a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law . . .5:1, Therefore since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 2:8,9, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift from God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.
Philippians 3:7, Whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have lost all things, I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (See also John 3:16; Acts 16 30-31; Titus 3:5-7)
What did Abraham believe? He believed everything God told him. He believed in God’s promises. He did not have a great deal of knowledge. You do not have to be a theologian to be saved. You do not need to have detailed knowledge of the Bible. In fact, when you are saved you may know very little. You spend the rest of your life learning what happened to you. Just as you might be doing now reading this article.
He believed the promise of God that he would have a son and an heir from his own body, that he would be the Father of multitudes; multitudes of descendants both physical and spiritual. But it seems from something Jesus said, and what is said elsewhere, that dimly though it may have been, he even saw that from his loins would come one Seed, a Deliverer, a Messiah. “Your father, Abraham,” Jesus said, “rejoiced to see my day. He saw it, and was glad.” (John 8:56 KJV). Abraham believed in the Christ who was to come, and we believe in Him Who came. There is no salvation except through Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
What is this faith that is so important?
Answer: Wholehearted trust in Jesus Christ.
It is not merely intellectual assent that leaves you unchanged. Some people have stumbled at that. They have a false assurance. They think because they once said, “Yes,” to a truth ABOUT justification, they are therefore justified. Satan acknowledges the truth of it but he is not saved.
We must, therefore, be careful here. It is not merely assenting to certain credal statements, whether long and detailed (Westminster Confession of Faith), or short and simple (Four Spiritual Laws). Such things have their place and can be helpful, but our faith is not in a Creed but in Christ. It is a deep personal commitment to Jesus. We talk about “sharing our faith.” Of course, we mean sharing THE Faith, the Truth, the Gospel. No-one can share his faith with another, any more than he can share his repentance, it is personal. It is his very own.
Nor is it a calculated risk based on probabilities. I have heard even preachers say, “Come on, this is not so difficult. You are exercising faith every day. When you board a train, you are exercising faith. You believe the driver is qualified and will take you to your destination. When you board a plane, you are exercising faith.”
My friend, you may be exercising faith of a sort but this is not the faith the Bible is talking about. Saving faith, justifying faith is not a calculated risk soundly based on probabilities (air travel safety records etc.). It is something that God works in the heart in such a way that even though you are the only one who does so, you will cast your soul upon Jesus Christ.
F-A-I-T-H – Forsaking All, I Trust Him.
Remember too: it is not how much faith you have but where it’s placed.
When my wife and I first moved to America we looked for a good bank. We found a nearby one that looked very solid and reliable and boasted it had been secure for over one hundred years. Furthermore, it was called, “The Perpetual”. We put our money there with great confidence. It went bust. Great faith: bad bank!
Alas many are pinning their faith for eternity in the wrong place. Is your faith in Christ? It may be small, but it’s well placed.
Do good works have any part to play at all?
Answer: No – and – Yes.
NO…no part whatsoever in our becoming justified. I must stress this again. We are not justified by faith plus works, or faith plus baptism, or faith plus keeping the Ten Commandments, or faith plus going to church, or faith plus anything.
It is by grace alone (undeserved); through faith alone (personal trust); in Christ alone (God’s Son and my Saviour, Friend and Lord). It is not MY work which justifies but HIS. Why, even my faith is a gift of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8). Strictly speaking I prefer justification THROUGH faith rather than by faith. Our faith does not save us, Christ does. Faith is the grace-given hand which receives the gift offered in Christ.
YES…in that works are the outward evidence of that inward faith. Paul says we are saved “…unto good works” (Eph 2:10). James says, “Faith without works is dead;” (James 2:17) meaning that true saving, justifying, faith is a living thing which results in a changed life. If a sinner claims to have repented of his sins, turned from them and cast himself wholly upon Jesus Christ, but then goes on living with no change whatsoever in his life, how can he have sincere and genuine faith. He is just pretending.
I am not saying a true Christian does not sin. Of course, he does. We are weak and we fall; Satan tempts us and we give in. Some sins are not easily overcome. I am referring to someone in whose life there is no difference at all.
It seems to me there are two extremes to avoid. One would add works to faith as necessary to our justification. The other would say they don’t matter at all. Further discussion must wait for another article (“How Can I Be Sure I’m Saved?”).
If I commit sin AFTER I have trusted Christ will I be lost?
Answer: No, never.
There are many, many reasons why I believe this.
I will say something now that many people have not realized. When Jesus died on the cross and paid the penalty for the sins of His people, He died for ALL OUR SINS, past, present and future!
If you find that statement shocking, just imagine the alternative. What if He had only died for our past sins: the ones we had committed up until the moment we believed. In that case when we sinned again (and who doesn’t?) we would be lost again. Or, what if Jesus died for all our sins but only conditionally upon our repenting and believing every time we sin. We would have to keep doing so all day long just in case we died after sinning but before repenting and believing again. What kind of assurance is that? Anyway, we often sin without knowing it. We could think we had repented of them all when we hadn’t. We would never know.
Note: you can never be more or less justified than you are the moment you believe.
If Satan accuses you before God (and he is the Accuser), your Saviour steps forward and declares, “Father I died for that one; he\she is covered by the blood.” Charge dismissed.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. (Rom 8:1 and 33).
The reason why people are worried about what I have just written is they are afraid it will encourage sin. “O, if you tell people that,” they say, “you are giving them a blank check to sin. You are saying they can sin and it doesn’t matter because they can never be lost.”
You know, we should never tamper with God’s Gospel however “dangerous” we think it is. But anyway, who said sin doesn’t matter? Actually, the interesting thing is this: those who have truly put their trust in Christ do NOT want to sin. Not in their heart of hearts. They know that sin grieves their Lord and retards their growth. Never would a true Christian turn the Grace of God into a license to sin. But the true Gospel always is open to that criticism from those who don’t understand – or it isn’t the true Gospel. Paul faced the very same criticism (Romans 6:1-2).
The true Gospel always seems too good to be true! Yet it is true. Christian, do not carry that guilt around with you any longer when your Savior took it all away. Your sins are GONE. I said GONE!!
So, here is my last question:
How about you then, friend? Are you justified through faith in Jesus Christ?
Answer: ? Only YOU know the answer this time.
Have you forsaken all hope of salvation by any other means but Jesus? Have you abandoned any trust in your works of righteousness, your religion, your parentage, or nationality, religious rites and ceremonies? None of these can save you.
Have you cast your lot with Him who is your Saviour, and your friend, and your Lord? You have? Are you living in the glory of it that your sins are gone forever? You are? Then do you thank God for his grace, rejoice in sins forgiven and does your heart sing for joy with the hymn writers?
With Charles Wesley:
No condemnation now I dread.
Jesus, and all in Him is mine.
Alive in Him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
With Augustus Toplady:
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.
With Edward Mote:
My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
When the last trumpet voice shall sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
Christian, as you finish reading this short exposition of this mighty Gospel truth will you not pause and lift up your heart, right now, in praise to God?
Is there someone reading this article who has never trusted Christ. Perhaps someone who loves you directed you to this article because they cannot bear the thought that you will be lost for eternity. Praise God, you have read it. You are saying “Harry, I never knew this before.”
Do you see it now? Has God in His grace shown you the truth? Then do not hesitate another moment. Fall upon your knees and cry out to God to save you for the dear Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.
He will. O, He will.
This article was originally published as a booklet in 1993, and is based upon the sermon entitled “Justification by Faith” in the Foundations series. The sermon can be heard by clicking on the following link: FO 30 Justification by Faith