The Doctrine of Justification by Faith

by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

  This is the fiftieth lecture that I have been privileged to give you on this great and glorious and, to me at any rate, enthralling theme, and I am very happy to think that on this occasion we come to a consideration of the great and vital doctrine of justification by faith only, the biblical doctrine of justification. There is no better test that we who are Christians can apply to ourselves to know the quality of life that we really have in Christ, than this one: What is our reaction to the mere mention of the word ‘justification’? It is a test that all Christians should apply to themselves, . . . .

. . . the story of his life (Martin Luther) goes on to tell us that suddenly he saw a statement in the Scripture. He had read it many times before but he had never truly seen it. This is what he saw: ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17)—and these words absolutely changed everything for him. His whole life was revolutionised; he became an entirely different man. He suddenly saw that all his past ideas on justification had been quite unscriptural, utterly false, and the moment he saw this, he experienced a great liberation of his soul. He began to preach this truth and so began the great and mighty work of reformation.

     Exactly what, then, did Luther see? It was that justification is a judicial act of God in which He declares that He regards those of us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, as righteous on the grounds of the work and merit of Christ. God imputes and ascribes Christ’s righteousness to us, and we rest on that by faith. That is what Luther saw. As a result, in a moment, he knew that he was right with God. Luther’s problem had been that of Job: ‘How should a man be just with God?’ (Job 9:2). How can a man stand in the presence of God? That was the problem that oppressed the mind and heart of Luther. There he was, a monk in his cell, asking, ‘How can I put myself right with God?’ He fasted, he prayed, he sweated, he did good deeds, and yet the whole time he was more and more aware of the blackness and darkness of his own heart and of the utter unutterable righteousness and holiness of God. And he was trying to fit himself, to make himself just, . . .  and he could not, but there he saw it suddenly. God declares him righteous, and he is righteous, because God says so, because God puts to his account the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

     That is the historical background in which we should rejoice more and more. The crux of the matter is this: the great mistake we all tend to fall in, as Luther had done, with regard to justification, is that we tend to think that justification means that we are made righteous or good or upright or holy. But that is quite wrong. In justification we are not maderighteous, we are declared to be righteous—the thing is quite different. To say that in justification you are made righteous is to confuse it with sanctification. Justification is something legal or forensic. It is God, as the Judge, who is responsible for administering His own law, saying to us that as regards the law He is satisfied with us because of the righteousness of Christ. Justification is a declaratory act. It does not do anything to us: it says something about us. It has no reference to my actual state or condition inside; it has reference to my standing, to my position, to my appearing in the presence of God. Now that is the biblical doctrine of justification. That is what Luther discovered; that is what he began to preach and, in a sense, he spent the rest of his life in preaching it. It is the great central doctrine of all Protestantism and in every great revival you will find that this always comes to the forefront. It was what Whitefield used to preach, as did John Wesley.

     . . . .  Let me give you, therefore, the biblical evidence that justification is forensic and declarative. Take it first of all in the Old Testament. We read in Exodus 23:7: ‘Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not: for I will not justify the wicked.’ That is what God says, that is the commandment given to the Children of Israel and it means: I will not let off the wicked, I will not say that such persons are guiltless.

    But take also Deuteronomy 25:1: ‘If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them, then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.’ You notice, again, the context in which the word ‘justify’ is used. Here is a controversy between two men and they come to judgment. The judges who judge the case are told: ‘They shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.’ Obviously that is a purely legal matter. These judges are not going to change the nature of the two disputants but are going to make a declaration; they will pronounce judgment, they will say that one is right and that the other is wrong. And the act of declaring that one is right is referred to as ‘justify the righteous’. It is a legal action.

     Then take another verse: ‘He that justifieth the wicked and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord’ (Proverb 17:15). In that most important proverb justification is put over against condemnation; again, it is a legal matter. In neither case are you changing the person. God would never forbid us to make a man a better man, and if justification is the same as sanctification, then God could never say, ‘He that justifieth the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,’ because that is a good thing to do! No, the condemnation is of those who say that a bad man is a good man, that a man who is guilty is not guilty. Again the term is forensic.

     But take an illustration of the use of this word in the New Testament: ‘And all the people that heard him [the Lord Jesus Christ], and the publicans, justified God’ (Luke 7:29). Now that can only mean one thing: they said that God was right and true. They did not change the nature or the being of God, but made a declaration about Him. They justified God. And then, of course, when you come to the scriptures with direct teaching about justification, you find that that is the sense which it carries everywhere. Read, for instance, Acts 13:39: ‘And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which we could not be justified by the law of Moses.’

     Then in that great classic passage on this whole matter, in Romans 3:20—28, this meaning of ‘justification’ is repeated constantly: ‘Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets: even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ.. .’And then that tremendous conclusion in verse 28: ‘Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.’ Again, there are most important statements in chapter 4:5—7, especially the fifth verse: ‘But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’ God does not justify a man because he is good: this is a statement about the ungodly. They are not changed, they are not made godly before God justifies them; He justifies the ungodly—and there are other statements in those verses.

     Then you have the same teaching in Romans 5:1: ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God...’ and again in the ninth verse. There is also a great statement of this in Romans 8:30— 34: ‘Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.’ And then this: ‘What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?. . . Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect?’ And the answer is: ‘It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.’ Again, you see, justification is opposed to condemnation, and nobody can bring an accusation because it is God who declares people just.

     The whole time justification is legal and forensic, and as you go on with the Scriptures you will find this in other places: ‘But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Cor. 6:11). And in Galatians 2:16 there is a statement which is parallel to those in Romans: ‘Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.’ Galatians is the great epistle that gave Martin Luther his liberty. His famous commentary on the epistle to the Galatians is a book that you should read and the more you go on with it, the more you will enjoy it. Do not be put off by his polemic against the Roman Catholics. He had to do that because you must show what is wrong as well as what is right. People do not like that today, but Luther had to do it, and I think we must do it in our age and generation. So buy Luther on the epistle to the Galatians and follow through his mighty exposition of great verses like chapters 2:16 and 3:11.

     Now in all the instances that I have given, God makes a legal declaration, that all the demands of the law upon us, as a condition of life, are fully satisfied with regard to all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. We are no longer in a state of condemnation: ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 5:1). ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Why? Because God has declared it. He is the lawgiver and he says that Christ has satisfied the law. ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth’ (Romans 10:4). God makes this declaration and that is the whole meaning of justification by faith only.

     But we do not leave it quite at that because we must point out that there are two aspects to this great declaration. There are two elements to justification. And this is most important. The first is what we may describe as negative. The negative element of justification is that which reminds us that God declares that our sins are forgiven. That is our first need, of course. The law condemns us all. ‘By the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20), and the law says, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’ (Rom. 3:10). The whole world is ‘guilty before God’ (Rom. 3:19). I need to be forgiven. Something must be done about my guilt. Now in justification the first step is that I am assured that by the work of Christ my sins are covered and are therefore forgiven; they are blotted out.

    But (and this is the point) justification does not stop at forgiveness. Justification and forgiveness are not identical. There are, however many people—and I must say, to be accurate, that there are even evangelical people—who identify justification and forgiveness; and they do that because their doctrine of the atonement is wrong, as we saw in an earlier lecture.1 They do not realise that, as part of the atonement, Christ rendered a positive obedience to the law before He obeyed it passively in His death upon the cross. In other words, there is a second, positive, element in justification. This means that, in addition to having our sins forgiven, we have imputed to us, or put to our account or to our reckoning, the positive righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He kept the law, He honoured it, and therefore He is righteous face to face with the demands of the law. And God puts that righteousness of Christ to my account.

     Now that is important in this way. There are many people who foolishly think that justification only means that my sinfulness is forgiven and I am restored to the condition of Adam before he fell. If this is the case, then it is up to me now, by my own righteous living, to justify myself. Those who believe that say, ‘God, for Christ’s sake, forgives your sins and because you’re forgiven, you’re going to live a godly life. And if you do so, God will put that down to your account.’

     But that is quite wrong! I have nothing at all to do in my justification. It is entirely the act of God. He attributes to me, He puts to my account, He imputes to me, the positive righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am not simply restored to the condition that Adam was in before he fell; I am much beyond that. Adam did not have the positive righteousness of Christ. I, as a Christian, have it; God has put it to my account. Count Zinzendorf’s hymn puts it perfectly:

Jesus, Thy robe of righteousness

My beauty is, my glorious dress.

     We are covered with the positive righteousness of Christ.

0 let the dead now hear Thy voice,

Bid, Lord, Thy banished ones rejoice;

Their beauty this, their glorious dress,

Jesus, the Lord our righteousness.

     You see, that goes entirely beyond forgiveness. It is not negative, it is positive. We are clothed with the spotless robe of His perfect righteousness.

     That, then, is the contention, and we can prove it by these very Scriptures that we have already considered. It is there perfectly in Romans 3:20—22: ‘Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.’ It is a righteousness that God gives us and it is positive. Or you have it again in Romans 4:6: ‘Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works.’ He is not talking about forgiveness. David saw it, he was a prophet at this point and the Holy Spirit revealed it to him. And it is also to be found in Paul’s great argument which runs through the second half of that most important fifth chapter of Romans.

For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (vv. 17—19)

     Here we see not only Christ’s passive obedience, but His active obedience as well, His keeping of the law and the contrast with Adam who broke the law and who therefore fell.

     We have already considered Romans 10:4: ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.’ There is also 1 Corinthians 1:30: ‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.’ And 2 Corinthians 5:21: ‘For he [God] hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’—not merely forgiveness, but positive righteousness in the presence of God. And finally, we read in Philippians 3:9: ‘And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.’

     All that is enough to show you that this is the essential teaching with regard to righteousness. Let me make it still more certain by showing, very briefly, the essential differences between justification and sanctification. Look at it like this: justification is an act of God the Father, as we have seen; sanctification is essentially the work of God the Holy Spirit. There is this division of work, you remember in the blessed Persons of the Holy Trinity.1 It is the Father who declares righteous and just. It is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies.

     Secondly, justification takes place outside us, as in a tribunal; sanctification takes place within us, in our inner life. I stand in the court when I am justified and the judge pronounces that I am free, it is a statement about me, outside me. But sanctification is something that is worked and takes place within.

     Thirdly, justification removes the guilt of sin; sanctification removes the pollution of sin and renews us in the image of God.

     And therefore, lastly, by definition justification is a once-and-for-all act. It is never to be repeated because it cannot be repeated and never needs to be repeated. It is not a process but a declaration that we are declared just once and for ever, by God. Sanctification, on the other hand, is a continuous process. We continue to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord until beyond the veil we are perfect.

     So there is nothing quite so erroneous and confusing and unscriptural as to mistake the essential difference between justification and sanctification. . . . It was the thing that held Luther in bondage, and once he saw it, and knew that he was free and just with God, he began to glory and to rejoice—and this is the essence of the Protestant position. Furthermore, of course, it led, in turn, as we saw in the last lecture, to Luther’s assurance of salvation. But if you once confuse sanctification with justification, you will be doubtful as to whether you are justified or not. If you once bring in your state and condition and your sin which you may commit, then you are querying your justification. But if you realise that justification is forensic, external and declaratory you know that you are justified whatever may be true about you.

     How, then, does justification happen? The answer is, of course, that it is entirely God’s act. It is something that He and He alone does. The Bible is very careful to put it negatively by saying ‘not of works’ (Ephesians 2:9). Paul repeats that in Romans 4:5, ‘But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’ We do nothing at all about our justification. It is God’s declaration about us; we know it and we receive it by faith.

     Now here we come to a crucial point. What do we mean when we say that we are justified by faith only? What is the relationship between faith and justification? This is important because some people think it means that we are justified on account of our faith. But that is the very essence of heresy and must be condemned root and branch. If I am justified on account of my faith, or because I exercise faith, then my salvation is definitely by works and God justifies me because of this work that I have done which I call faith. But the Scripture does not say that I am justified on account of my faith or because I am exercising faith, it says that I am justified by faith, which means that faith is the instrument—and nothing but the instrument—by which I am enabled to receive the righteousness which God gives me.

     I wonder whether you realise the significance of this? There are people who say that the difference the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and His death upon the cross has made is that, until then, God judged men and women according to the law. But they say that now the law has been put on one side; it is no longer in existence and God no longer asks us to keep it. All He asks us now is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and if we do that He will declare us just. But that is a complete travesty of the Apostle’s teaching! The Bible never says that anywhere, because, if that were true, what would really save us in the end is our believing on the Lord Jesus Christ.

     The biblical teaching is that faith, our faith, is not the grounds of our justification. The grounds of our justification is the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ imputed to us. Christ, and not my faith, is my righteousness. It is not my believing in Him that saves me. It is He who saves me. So you see the subtle danger of regarding my faith as the grounds of salvation?

     ‘Well, where does faith come in?’ you ask.

     Faith is but the channel, the instrument, by which this righteousness of Christ comes on to me. And as we saw when we considered faith, God does it like this. He gives us the new birth; He gives us this power and faculty of faith and then He enables us to exercise it. Through this exercise of faith we receive the righteousness that God imputes to us. It is all of God. ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8). If we had not been given the gift of faith, we could not receive the righteousness of Christ, but we are justified by the righteousness of Christ, not by our faith.

     ‘But wait a minute,’ says someone. ‘Aren’t you, in saying all that, forgetting what James has to say about faith in chapter 2:14—26? Doesn’t he there contradict what Paul teaches in Romans 4? Paul says, “by faith only”; James says, “by works”. What about that?’

    Well, surely, the answer is that neither Paul nor James, at that point, is concerned with the question of justification as such; they are both simply dealing with the character of faith. They are arguing against different types of people. Paul is dealing with people who believed that they could justify themselves by their works, by their lives and their actions. And to them he has to say, ‘No, justification is by faith only, and it was Abraham’s faith that saved him.’

     But James is speaking about people who, like certain people today, were saying, ‘As long as I say I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and I’m saved, it doesn’t really matter what I do. If I say I’m a Christian and a believer, well, I can go and do what I like my sins will be forgiven.’

     ‘Not at all!’ says James. Then he proceeds to show that saving faith, faith worthy of the name faith, is a faith that includes obedience, it includes action: ‘As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also’ (Jas. 2:26). ‘It is no use talking about faith and about being justified by faith,’ says James in effect, ‘if you haven’t got true faith. And the way you test whether or not your faith is true is by asking whether it leads to certain things in your life.’

     Now Paul is saying exactly the same thing. Paul’s faith was not a kind of dead faith, it was very active; it proved itself and showed itself. Indeed, in Romans 6, Paul is making exactly the same point as James: ‘What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law but under grace?’ (v. 15). The whole of that chapter is really parallel with James 2. Paul and James are looking at two different problems and are correcting two particular types of error.

     But as we have said, the great thing for us to realise is that our faith does not constitute our righteousness. God does not look at me and say that because I believe, He will count that as righteousness. Not at all! What He says is this: ‘I will give to you the righteousness of my Son, who kept the law perfectly for you, and who died for your sins. He is absolutely righteous before the law and He has represented you before the law. He has fulfilled its every iota and therefore I will give you His righteousness.’ He calls upon me to believe in Him, and He has given me, by the gift of faith, the power to believe. So I look to Christ, not to myself, not to my faith, my righteousness is entirely in the Lord Jesus Christ. God has made Him ‘wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). So I do not lean on anything in myself, not even on my faith. My faith makes me lean entirely on the Lord Jesus Christ. And, knowing that God has imputed His righteousness to me, I know that all is well between me and God. I believe His declaration. My faith accepts it. He has put to my account the perfect, spotless, seamless robe of righteousness of His dear Son. That is the biblical and the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith only. 


From the book Great Doctrines of the Bible by Martyn Lloyd-Jones 

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links