Luke 2:10-11 records the angels’ proclamation of the gospel to the shepherds. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Today, we will take a closer look at the doctrine of justification by faith alone as an essential part of the gospel news.
“We explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (John Calvin).
“We must rely entirely on Christ’s righteousness, not our own, as our sole basis for acceptance by the Judge” (Jerry Bridges).
What is the biblical basis for Justification by Faith Alone?
To begin, a short lesson in church history is in order to show the issues leading to the Reformers’ rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther and Calvin both felt Christianity either perseveres or falls on the idea of justification, because the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone is the central doctrine that separates Christianity from other faiths of works. No other world religion hinges salvation upon faith alone like Christianity does, wholly apart from works. For that reason, Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith alone during the Reformation was, perhaps, the key to all the church has gained since the day he pinned his 95 protests to the church door in Wittenburg, and it is important we don’t slip away from it again. Now, why is the doctrine of justification by faith an essential part of the gospel news, and how does it relate to the all-surpassing beauty of the cross and our great salvation in Jesus Christ?
“The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God ” (Luther, ‘95 Theses‘, 62).
When Luther first abdicated the Roman Catholic teaching of justification by faith maintained by works and the purchase of indulgences, his rediscovery of justification by faith alone was not the contentious ramblings of a ‘drunken German,’ rather he found it ringing loud and clear in the Bible.
For Luther, either salvation was by grace alone (Sola Gratia) or it could be bought. It couldn’t be BOTH. Neither could salvation be maintained by a combination of faith and works to the very end. That is when he realized, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ [Rom. 1:17]. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith” (Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation, 31). That is, justification is by faith alone (Sola Fide) according to God’s rich grace alone through Christ and his death on the cross (Sola Gratia/Solus Christus).
Luther’s rediscovery of the biblical idea of justification by faith alone is vibrantly amplified by Romans 4. “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 credited to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:2-3). Abraham was not vindicated before God by his relative uprightness compared to the people around him. Rom. 4:2-3 is readily understood. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
A few verses later, Paul relates justification to our sinfulness. “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Rom. 4:7-8). Psalm 130:3-4 is noticeably similar: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Since God is to be regarded as holy with our hearts and affections, justification is at the heart of the gospel. If the Lord forgives our lawless deeds, there needs to be an exchange. Rom. 6:23 teaches us that the wages of sin is death. Therefore, we need to have our sin be exchanged for his righteousness. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus is the punitive substitutionary atonement for all who are declared righteous by faith. That is why imputation is so important to justification. Christ lived the perfect life that we should have lived and are condemned for not doing, and he died the sinless sacrifice on our behalf, our ransom, imputing his righteousness to us and taking our sins from us and taking them on himself on the cross.
How can we be certain salvation in Jesus Christ will carry us to the end?
On Sunday morning, I preached 1 John 2:28-29, relating John’s catchphrase to ‘abide in Christ’ to Sola Fide. I believe these verses can easily be misread to put forward that abiding in Christ is something we can, and therefore, ought to do by our own labors apart from saving faith. That is why there is also an important tie to make involving justification by faith at conversion and the way in which we are sealed by God’s sovereign grace to the end.
The Bible by no means intimates we persevere in our salvation by our will or works. But what does that say about texts like these? “But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Too often, Christians read texts of prudence or watchfulness that intend to help us to make our calling and election sure without keeping the gospel at the center of our assurance. The Bible often says fruitfulness is a necessary effect of belief. However, this is not to say that God demands perfection of his children in order to persevere to the end. It is clear from Phil. 3:12, 13 and 1 John 1:8-10 and Matt. 6:12 that the New Testament does not hold out the demand that we be sinlessly perfect in order to be saved. But the New Testament does demand that we be morally changed and walk in the newness of life.
1 John 2:28 says, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink away from him in shame at his coming.” A high view of justification by faith is needed in order to understand v. 28 correctly. When John says we must abide in Christ, he is making the point that our righteousness comes ultimately from Christ, not our own efforts. Why do I think that? Verse 29 says, “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” We are to abide in the vine and produce fruit according to Christ’s righteousness which we draw from him. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
1 Peter 1:5 relegates the argument that salvation is sustained by our efforts. “By God’s power we are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” We are guarded through faith by God’s power for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Christ will guard his sheep. John 10:27-30 guarantees that. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30). By faith, we are banking our hope “on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.” By faith, we are trusting in all that God is for us in Jesus Christ to be our salvation and that he will preserve his children in Christ to the end.
Justification by Faith Alone Boasts Soli Deo Gloria!
Why is the doctrine of justification by faith alone an essential part of the gospel as news? Any high view of justification by faith will accompany a biblical view of the pervasive and radically corrupt sinfulness of man. At the heart of the gospel news is the truth that we are justified by faith alone according to God’s grace for us in Jesus Christ.
“If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29).
How does justification relate to the majesty and surpassing beauty of Christ and his death for the particular redemption of his children chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world? Justification by faith alone relies on God’s sovereign grace to credit us righteousness.
For a few, a battle for the lordship of Christ as the gospel and key for salvation along with a peculiar new interpretation of Paul, popularized by N.T. Wright has brought concerns to many pastors and scholars who have cherished Sola Fide as the idea in which every individual will stand or fall, persevere or perish before the glory and love of God. At the heart of the arguments made against justification that is directly linked to the vicarious suffering of Christ as the penal substitutionary atonement for those who believe is a caution that we should not make too much of justification at the expense of Christ’s lordship. But that is to miss the point of the true beauty of justification. For the sake of keeping this post brief, I will simply say that the direct effect of belief that we, as God’s children and as his church, are justified by faith alone is an upright fear of humility and joy before Christ as Lord, for the glory of God the Father and the supremacy of Christ over all the Father has lovingly given his Son.