Justification by faith defies all attempts to domesticate and modify it.
Many of us are familiar with the inspiring story of the audacious German monk, Martin Luther, nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Lots of us know that one of his great concerns was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And some of us know that this doctrine has been a hallmark of faithful evangelical preaching ever since. But we may have never appreciated exactly how radical this truth is.
Preparing to Hear a Radical Truth
Justification by faith is one of the most stunning things we will ever hear. But let’s make sure we understand all the terms and concepts clearly:
-Justified means we are declared righteous, not made righteous.
-When we say we are justified by faith, we emphasize that we are declared righteous not because we ourselves are righteous, but rather we are declared righteous for another reason.
-Justified by faith does not mean we are justified on the basis of our belief, on account of our belief, or on the ground of our own believing—that would just be another way of saying we are justified by something we are or do. No, “justified by faith” means faith is the instrument or means by which we receive God’s gracious justification, a declaration based on something outside ourselves.
-Thus, the doctrine of justification by faith is not merely that we are justified by our faith as opposed to our works. It is not that our faith saves us rather than our works, or that our faith is the basis of our salvation rather than our works. Rather, the doctrine of justification by faith says we are justified by God’s grace, not because of our works, but because of Christ’s work—the saving benefits of which we receive by faith.
In other words, the reason for which God accepts us and pardons us is not found in us! It’s not because we were good. It’s not because we were better than others. It’s not because God foresaw good works in us. It’s not because God foresaw faith in us. It’s based upon what God saw in Christ and credited to our account.
This is a glorious, radical truth. But we’ve taken it for granted, forgotten and domesticated it, and some today are even trying to modify it. Over and over through the years, we have seen false teachers attempt to sneak something of our work back into justification. One reason for this: People just can’t imagine that God would declare sinners to be righteous. It is counter-intuitive. But that is precisely what Paul says that God does. We naturally incline to think that God will justify those who are righteous. But Paul is saying that God accepts and pardons those who don’t deserve to be accepted and pardoned, declares righteous those who are unrighteous, declares accepted those who ought not to be accepted, and declares sinners in rebellion against Him to be accepted and in right relationship to Him. That’s how radical justification by faith is! So it is good for us to come back to Paul and listen again to this amazing truth. One of its clearest explanations in the Bible is in Romans 3:21-28.
The Gracious-Righteous Provision for Sinners
Notice how Paul first explains that God’s gracious salvation is righteous: “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 those who believe” (Romans 3:21,22; New American Standard Bible). You might have expected Paul to say something like this: “Though we were dead in our trespasses, and though we were under the just judgment of God, God has displayed His grace in saving us through faith.” But instead, Paul says that God has displayed His righteousness. Paul emphasizes that God’s gracious salvation is also just and righteous. His mercy does not compromise, but rather magnifies, His holiness. In the very way that God accepts and pardons us, Paul says, God manifests his righteousness.
The Problem of Sin
Second, Paul reminds us of the gravity of our problem, thus heightening our sense of need for rescue in verses 22 and 23. The problem is sin. Having explained this problem extensively in Romans 1 and 2, he summarizes, “[T]here is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22b,23; NASB). In other words, whether a privileged Israelite or pagan Gentile, you have been weighed by God in balance and found lacking. No one has kept God’s law. No one has lived as God’s image. All have fallen short. That is the basic human problem. It is vital for us to pause and remember that. Paul says our big problem is sin; because of it we deserve God’s condemnation. We deserve to be cast out from His presence. We deserve to fall under His judgment. Paul tells us this to make it crystal clear that the solution to our problem is not found in us—in fact, the problem is found in us!
The Plan of Justification
Now Paul explains the means whereby God pardons us. We are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24, NASB). Paul tells us that God’s freely bestowed declaration of our innocence is the answer to our problem. Notice that this justification is not based on anything in us—not our works, nor our goodness, nor our faith, nor our foreseen faith or works, nor our future faithfulness. It is based on something else outside of us. In fact, it is a gift. You don’t earn, deserve, merit or contribute to God’s gift. You receive it by faith as a gift of His grace.
But Paul doesn’t leave it there; he emphatically points our eyes away from ourselves to the cross of Christ for justification. We are, he says, “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith . . . to demonstrate His righteousness” (Romans 3:25,26; NASB). That is, the foundation of the solution to our problem is Christ’s satisfying of the due penalty of our sins on the cross—His bearing of the wrath of God on our behalf. That is why it is so important to see that justification is not based on something within ourselves: not our works; not our goodness; not our faith. It is based on the person and work of Christ! By faith, we look away from ourselves to Him. We trust in what He has done. That is why God chooses faith as the instrument of justification, because saving faith is inherently self-renouncing.
In that way God is shown to be just in salvation. How so? Because though God shows mercy to the undeserving and bestows his favor on the wicked, He does so on the basis of perfect justice—the benefits of which we receive by faith. His Son has paid for every iota of our sin in our place. Jesus has earned our salvation by His work, so that God is both merciful and just. He is both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26b).
The Proceeds of Our Justification
And what are the results of all this? Boasting is excluded, for one thing (v. 27). How can you brag about anything in a salvation freely granted to you only in Jesus Christ, and based on nothing in you before or after conversion? Justification by faith means we are justified because of Christ! It means receiving the worthiness and the goodness and the works of Christ, credited to our account, merely by trust in the Christ of the gospel. It’s the most radical news in the world, and it will change your life.
Understanding this also helps keep the gospel clear. At the heart of the good news is the unexpected, gracious announcement that God saves sinners: He declares the wicked righteous because of Christ. This announcement exalts God’s grace and humbles redeemed sinner-believers, because no believers can point to their own actions as saving themselves. And it assures the Christian, because as long as our certainty of acceptance and pardon with God depends upon something in us, we will never, ever be securely certain. Our certainty of salvation rests ultimately in Christ. And if it doesn’t rest there, it has no place to rest at all, because our fickle lives cannot support an eternal security. For this reason, and more, justification by faith is a truth that needs to be recovered by the church today.
Ligon Duncan is senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, and adjunct professor of theology at RTS. Currently the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, New College, Scotland.