One of the great truths of salvation is that of justification. But what is justification? The heart of the Reformation controversy was over the meaning of this word and despite the impression given by ECT, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches are still very much at odds with one another on this issue. The Reformers claimed that the Roman Catholic Church had perverted the true biblical meaning of the term by insisting on the necessity of works and sacraments as the basis for justification. And the Roman Church charged that the Reformer’s teaching of faith alone (sola fide) and imputed righteousness was unbiblical and itself a perversion of the gospel message. In order to properly evaluate these two positions it is essential that we understand correctly what the bible teaches on this subject. And this begins with a biblical understanding of the nature of God. Why? Because all biblical teaching on salvation is rooted in the character of God himself.
The Nature of God
Scripture declares that God is a God of holiness. He is a God of light in whom there is no darkness at all (1Jn. 1:5). Because he is holy, he is just. He always acts righteously and in accord with his law since the law is an expression of his essential character. His holiness demands just dealings with sin. Thus, scripture teaches that the one true and living God is a God of wrath and judgment precisely because he is a God of holiness. As Leon Morris puts it:
The Old Testament consistently thinks of a God who works by the method of Law. This is not the conception of one or two writers but is found everywhere in the Old Testament…Yahweh was though of as essentially righteous in His nature, as incorporating the law of righteousness within His essential Being. Accordingly He works by a method which may be called law—He inevitably punishes evil–doing and rewards righteousness. He Himself acts righteously, and He demands that His people do the same(Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 233).
This is confirmed in the New Testament by the apostle Paul where he states that the atonement of Christ takes place to vindicate the righteousness of God, so that he might be found just while mercifully justifying sinners:
Being 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. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier ofthe one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:24-26).
This passage tells us something very significant about God and forgiveness. It tells us that God is a God of love and mercy but that he cannot and will not exercise his mercy in a way that would compromise his justice and righteousness. He must act in accord with his law because it is an expression of his holiness. So the forgiveness and justification of sinners must be compatible with God’s justice and righteousness. It must be consistent with and in fulfillment of his law. And that means that he must judge sin. So the ultimate question is this: How can unjust sinners stand before the judgment of a God who is infinitely holy and just? God, in his love, desires to forgive us and to extend mercy, but he cannot do so if it compromises his holiness and justice. The law demands death for transgression and perfect obedience for God’s acceptance. How can he forgive and accept us when we have transgressed the law and consequently do not possess this perfect righteousness? This is why the gospel is good news. It tells us that God has provided a salvation for us in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He has provided a means of redeeming us that is consistent with his holy nature and law. He is able to exercise his love and extend to us forgiveness without compromising his holiness and justice. The great message of the gospel is that we can be justified (forgiven and accepted by God) by grace through faith on account of Christ. The Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches both agree with this statement but define the terms differently. The key to understanding this difference in interpretation is the word alone. The Protestant Church states that an individual is justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. This distinction is crucial in understanding the scriptural teaching of justification because the word alone safeguards its biblical meaning. To omit this important word is to distort the scriptural teaching on justification. There are four key concepts expressed by this summary statement of the gospel: Justification, grace, faith and on account of Christ. To understand the first three—justification, grace and faith—we must understand that last phrase—on account of Christ, because scripture makes a direct correlation between justification and the work of Christ. If we understand the work of Christ we will understand the meaning of faith, grace and justification. Any meaningful discussion of justification must be based upon a thorough understanding of the atonement of Christ.
The Work of Christ in Atonement
One of the most important elements in understanding the atonement is its relationship to the law. The word of God states that Christ undertook the work of atonement to deal with the penalty of a transgressed law. In so doing he becomes both a curse and a propitiation. Thus, the atonement is forensic in nature because it is judicial in nature. This is emphasized in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans:
For as many as are the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law to perform them.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ (Gal. 3:10–13). ‘But 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; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being 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. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed. For the demonstration I say of His righteousness at the present time that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.’ (Rom. 3:21–28).
There are four important concepts emphasized in these passages which are key to an understanding of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement of Christ: The phrase ‘For us’; Curse; Propitiation; The righteousness of God.
The scriptures tell us that Christ became a curse for us. This is the truth of substitution. Jesus became a curse by bearing man’s sin and taking man’s place as his substitute to suffer the punishment due those sins by enduring the penalty of God’s broken law in man’s place. All of our sin was imputed to him and the judgment of God in all its fury came upon him:
‘God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Rom. 5:8).
‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age.’ (Gal. 1:3–4).
‘He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.’ (1 Pet. 2:24).
‘He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquity. The chastening for our well being fell upon Him and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.’ (Is. 53:4-6).
‘He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.’ (2Cor. 5:21).
Curse and Propitiation
Our sin was imputed to Christ. He then became a propitiation, suffering the wrath of God against our sin by laying down his own life in death to satisfy the demands of the law. This is the primary meaning of the word propitiation—to satisfy wrath. In this case it refers specifically to the wrath of God in relation to sin. Christ bore the wrath of God as a judgment against sin. This underscores the fact that Christ’s atonement is penal in nature. It relates to the law of God. Scripture teaches that one of the purposes of Christ’s incarnation was related to the law of God:
‘But when the fulness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons’ (Gal. 4:4–5).
On the cross Christ bore the full punishment of the law as man’s substitute. In becoming a propitiation, he completely satisfied the justice of God in that full punishment has been meted out to Christ as our substitute. He bore the full penalty of the law—the curse of the law (he hangs on a tree in death)—because the law demands death for transgression. The reference to the shedding of blood in scripture as the payment for sin always represents a life laid down in death. There are various descriptions of this in the New Testament:
‘Christ…gave Himself for our sins.’ (Gal. 1:4);
‘He…delivered Him up for us all.’ (Rom. 8:32);
‘Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.’ (Eph. 5:2);
‘But God demonstrated His own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ (Rom. 5:8);
‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.’ (Eph. 1:7).
These expressions refer us back to the Old Testament sacrificial system which represented the ultimate sacrifice of Christ as the lamb of God:
‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you on the altar to make an atonement for your souls, for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’ (Lev. 17:11).
‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness…’ (Heb. 9:27).
‘Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ (Jn. 1:29).
So when scripture tells us that we are justified as a gift through the propitiation of Christ and his blood (Rom. 3:25–26; 5:9), it means that through his death he bore our sin and perfectly fulfilled all the requirements of the law as our substitute. If we understand Christ’s atonement we will begin to understand the biblical meaning of justification. Justification is directly related to the atonement in scripture: ‘Having now been justified by His blood we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.’ (Rom. 5:9). To be justified by Christ’s blood is to be justified by his death which is his work of atonement. What then is the nature of Christ’s atonement according to the word of God? Christ has borne the totality of man’s sin. In his one act of obedience as a propitiatory sacrifice in death he has borne the full judgment and condemnation of God against sin forever. The New Testament teaches that his atonement is once–for–all. This means that the work of atonement is a finished and complete work. Jesus himself said, ‘It is finished.’ Note the following references to the once–for–all nature of the atonement:
‘Knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives He lives to God.’ (Rom. 6:10).
‘Who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.’ (Heb. 7:27)
‘Nor was it that He should offer Himself often…otherwise He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages he has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.’ (Heb. 9:25–26).
‘By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ (Heb. 10:10).
Repeatedly this once–for–all aspect of the work of Christ is emphasized in scripture. The Greek word translated once–for–all is ephapax. It is used in particular with reference to Jesus’ death and communicates the thought that Christ’s death is a finished work which cannot be repeated or perpetuated. It was a unique historic event which is completed and therefore he can never experience death again. In addition to Paul’s affirmation of this, Jesus himself states: ‘I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore’ (Rev. 1:18). The word used to describe the death of Jesus as a finished work — ephapax — is the same word used to describe his sacrifice and the offering of his body (Heb. 10:10; 9:25–26). Just as Christ cannot die again, neither can his body be offered again or his sacrifice be continued for sin. This is because apart from his death there is no sacrifice that is propitiatory for sin. What made his sacrifice propitiatory in God’s eyes was his death. Hebrews 9:22 makes this point: ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness . . .’ As a result then of this one sacrifice, the bible teaches that God has accomplished a sufficient and finished atonement. On the basis of that finished work God now offers complete and total forgiveness to man. There is no more sacrifice for sin: ‘Where there is forgiveness of these things there is no longer any offering for sin.’ (Heb. 10:18). And since there is no need for further sacrifice, scripture also teaches that there is no need for a continuing sacerdotal priesthood. Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament ceremonial law and it is now abrogated (Heb. 7:11–19). He has become our Sacrifice and Priest and the only Mediator by which we approach God (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:22–25). Christ’s atonement has completely removed the guilt of our sin and its condemnation because he has paid the penalty in full. This will become more evident as we examine the different Greek words used to describe the work of Christ in relationship to sin.
The Greek word luo means to loose. It is found in the famous Matthew 16 passage where Jesus entrusts the keys of the kingdom to Peter and tells him that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. Luo means to release, to set free, to dissolve or to destroy. Jesus used this word to describe His impending death and resurrection: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ (Jn. 2:19). Peter uses the word to describe the destruction of the physical universe at the end of the age:
‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat and the earth and all its works will be burned up. Since these things are to be destroyed in this way what sort of people ought we to be in holy conduct and godliness.’ (2 Pet. 3:10–11).
The significance of this word luo in the context of salvation is that it is the root word for all Greek words that refer to redemption. For example the word apolutrosis is the common Greek word for redemption. It is the word used in Ephesians 1:7: ‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.’ The word lutron which forms part of the word apolutrosis means a ransom price. This is the word used by Jesus to describe the meaning of his sacrificial death: ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many’ (Mk. 10:45). The word lutroo is the verb form of lutron and it means to redeem through the payment of a ransom price. Peter describes this in the following words: Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.
(1 Pet. 1:18–19).
‘To Him who loves us and released (loosed) us from our sins by His blood.’ (Rev. 1:5).
‘But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.’ (Heb. 9:11–12).
Those who are united to Christ possess this redemption. It means a complete and full deliverance from the guilt and condemnation of sin as well as from its bondage. The redeemed in Christ are loosed from their sins—cleansed, forgiven and set free—for all eternity:
‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.’ (Ps. 103:12).
‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ (Rom. 8:1).
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.’ (Jn. 5:24).
‘My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, 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 the Father’s hand.’ (Jn. 10:27–29).
When Jesus says that whoever enters into a relationship with him will never enter into judgment he uses the Greek word krisis. This word is used in John 5:24 to describe the activity of Jesus himself as Judge:
For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son…and He gave Him authority to execute judgment because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment (Jn. 5:22, 27-29; cf. Mt. 12:36; 1 Tim. 5:24; Heb. 9:27).
Those who have experienced redemption—the loosing of their sins as a result of the work of Jesus in atonement—will never enter into judgment by God for their sins. This is because their sins have already been judged in Jesus.
The word aphaireo means to take away or to remove. In Matthew 26:51 it refers to Peter’s removal of the ear of the servant of the high priest. This word is used in Hebrews 10:4 to contrast the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament dispensation with Jesus’ atonement. The author of Hebrews emphasizes the superiority of Christ’s atonement to the Old Testament sacrifice of animals because his sacrifice takes away sin: ‘For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…But now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.’ (Heb. 10:4; 9:26). The one sacrifice of Jesus completely removes or takes away the guilt of our sin with its consequent judgment and condemnation.
Athetesin means to annul or abolish. It is the word used to describe the annulling or setting aside of the Jewish ceremonial law once the sacrifice of Christ had been completed. It is the same word used to describe the effect of Christ’s sacrifice for sin:
‘Nor was it that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. Otherwise He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.’ (Heb. 9:26).
‘By this one sacrifice sin has been annulled, abolished, done away with. As a result, the promise of the New Covenant is that God no longer remembers our sin:’
‘Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.’ (Heb. 10:17).
The word katherismos means cleansing or purification. It is the word employed by the writer of Hebrews when he refers to Christ’s work as a purification from sin:
‘When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.’ (Heb. 1:3).
The term is used in the aorist tense here and it speaks of a once–for–all finished work by which Christ has made a complete cleansing of sin. This same word is used in Acts 15:9 by the apostle Peter when he testified to the conversion of the Gentiles: ‘And He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.’ When Peter preached the gospel and the Gentiles responded by trusting in Christ they experienced an instantaneous cleansing of their hearts from sin. It is also the word used by the apostle John in his first epistle where he states that it is the blood of Christ—his finished work of atonement—which is the effectual cause of cleansing from sin’s defilement:
‘The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 Jn. 1:7).
This is true of all who believe savingly in Christ. By faith we experience a complete cleansing from sin through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Aphesis means forgiveness as it relates to redemption and the ransom price of Christ’s sacrifice. The death (blood) of Jesus is the only sufficient payment for our sin. It alone satisfies the justice of God. Scripture teaches that ‘all things are cleansed with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness’ (Heb. 9:22). Since Jesus has shed his blood we have a complete forgiveness through him:
‘In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.’ (Eph. 1:7).
‘In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Col 1:14).
‘Now where there is forgiveness of these things there are no more sacrifices.’ (Heb. 10:18).
Exalaisas means to wipe away, to obliterate, to erase, to blot out. It describes what God does with the totality of our sin in Christ:
‘He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.’ (Col. 2:13-14).
‘Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that the times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.’ (Acts 3:19).
How many of our sins has Christ died for? Since he died for us before we were even born he died for all our sin, not just a portion of it. The certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us—our individual transgressions of the law—has been abolished. It has been nailed to the cross. All our transgressions have been dealt with in Christ. Our debt is completely paid and we are set free. In the mind of God all our transgressions have been canceled out and wiped away because the judgment due them was inflicted upon the Lord Jesus Christ and as a result ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ (Rom. 8:1).
The Reformation understanding of justification as comprising freedom from the condemnation of the law through the atonement of Christ is expressed by Huldrych Zwingli:
A second kind of freedom from the Law is that the Law cannot condemn any more, which yet before wrought the wrath and indignation and just vengeance of God, Rom. 4:15 and Gal. 3:10; and Deut. 27:26, where divine justice sternly thunders: ‘Cursed is everyone who continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ Christ, therefore ‘redeemed us from this curse of the law, being made a curse for us,’ that is, being nailed to the cross for us, Gal. 3:13 and Rom. 6:10. We are no longer under the Law but under grace; and if under grace, the Law cannot condemn us, for if the Law still has the power to condemn, we are not under grace. It is, therefore, Christ who has broken the wrath of the Law (that is, who has appeased God’s justice, which would have caused Him deservedly to rage against us), and who by bearing the cruelty of the cross for us has so softened it that He has chosen to make us not only free instead of slaves, but even sons…We are freed from the vengeance of the Law; for Christ has paid by His suffering that penalty which we owed for our sins. Indeed, we have been so completely freed from sin, as far as it is a disease, that it is no longer able to harm us if we trust in Christ. For ‘there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh.’ (Rom. 8:1) (Huldrych Zwingli, Commentary On True and False Religion (Durham: Labyrinth, 1981), pp. 141–142).
The Reformed understanding of the forensic nature of the atonement of Christ is further elaborated by James Buchanan:
If we seek to ascertain the reasons which rendered it (Christ’s death) necessary…we are taught by Scripture to ascribe it to the sins of men—and the justice of God—viewed in connection with His purpose of saving sinners, in a way consistent with the honour of His law, and the interests of His righteous government, through a Divine Redeemer. If this be the correct view of the reason of His death…then we cannot fail to regard all the sufferings, which constituted so important a part of Christ’s Mediatorial work, as strictly penal. They were the punishment, not of personal, but of imputed, guilt. They were inflicted on Him as the Substitute of sinners. He was ‘made a curse’ for them, but only because He had been ‘made sin for them.’ In this view, His sufferings were penal, because they were judicially imposed on Him as the legal representative of those who had come under ‘the curse,’ according to the rule of that law which proclaimed that ‘the wages of sin is death,’ and that ‘the soul which sinneth it shall die.'(James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh: Banner, 1961), pp. 305–306).
The Atonement and Justification
The atonement is not an on going process. It is a once–for–all, non–repeatable and finished work. This means then that justification is a once–for–all, non–repeatable, finished work. It likewise is not a process. It is an eternal state of forgiveness and acceptance with God. Because the atonement is forensic (legal) in nature, justification is also a forensic work. When a man is justified all legal claims against him have been satisfied and he is forgiven. This is in part revealed by the resurrection:
‘He was delivered up because of our transgressions and raised because of our justification.’ (Rom. 4:25).
We are told that we possess the righteousness of God in justification and that through this righteousness we are given an eternal standing of forgiveness and acceptance before him. This is the basis upon which justification becomes a reality for sinful men and women and is the defining issue for a proper understanding of this great biblical doctrine.
The Righteousness of God
Because of God’s holiness man needs a righteousness that will truly justify him before God. Such a righteousness must be the perfect fulfilment of his law. The wonderful news of the gospel is that when a man is united to Jesus Christ he is given that righteousness as a gift, the righteousness of God, a righteousness which fully satisfies the justice of God and secures for the believer an eternal standing of acceptance and forgiveness before him. But what is the righteousness of God? Is it a righteousness that man is responsible for producing, partially or wholly, or is it a righteousness accomplished completely apart from man’s activity, given solely as a gift? It is imperative that we understand the biblical teaching on this matter. If this truth is distorted then the biblical meaning of justification will be distorted with tragic and eternal consequences. There are at least five different meanings for the word righteousness in the New Testament.
Firstly, it describes an attribute of God. God is described as being perfectly righteous in his essential nature (Deut. 32:4 ).
Secondly, it describes the character of Christ as ‘Jesus Christ the righteous’ (1 Jn. 2:1), meaning that he likewise is perfect and sinless in nature and character.
Thirdly, it carries an eschatological meaning. In the future kingdom of God following the second coming of the Lord Jesus, all sin will be eradicated (Rev. 21:27). There will be a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:10-13). This again describes a state of perfection.
Fourthly, it describes the experience of sanctification. The believer who enters into a salvation experience with the Lord Jesus Christ becomes a slave of righteousness (Rom. 6:1-22). Though imperfect, the prevailing characteristic of his life will be righteousness.
Finally, the word righteousness is used to describe the work of Christ in atonement, designated specifically by the phrase the righteousness of God. It is this which is the basis for man’s justification, separate and distinct from the other descriptions of righteousness given in scripture. The following scriptures define the nature of this justifying righteousness:
‘But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ…in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him.’ (Phil 3:7–10).
‘He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’ (2 Cor. 5:21).
‘But 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…being 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. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.’ (Rom. 3:21–26)
‘Now to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.’ (Rom. 4:4–8).
‘For if by the transgression of the one death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteousness.’ (Rom. 5:17–19).
‘Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.’ (Rom. 10:1–4).
‘But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.’ (1Cor. 1:30).
There are a number of key points in these passages regarding the righteousness that justifies. The following points summarize its essential characteristics:
- It is a righteousness that comes from God
- It is an objective, completed righteousness
- It is a righteousness accomplished outside of and apart from man
- It is a gift
- It is given apart from works
- It is imputed
- It is given to the ungodly
- It is received by faith
- It is the Person and obedience of Christ in His work of atonement
- It is given as a result of union with Christ
The righteousness that God requires as a fulfillment of his law is provided as a gift in his Son Jesus Christ who is the Lord our righteousness (1Jn. 2:1; Jer. 23:6). Paul describes the righteousness of God in Romans 3 as a righteousness apart from the law but predicted in the law and the prophets. Such prediction can be found in Isaiah 53, for example, where the atonement of Christ for sin is clearly set forth. Paul states that Christ became a propitiation for sin for the demonstration of the righteousness of God that he might be just in justifying sinners. In other words, the mercy and forgiveness he expresses towards sinners in justifying them is in conformity with the righteous demands of the law and with his holy nature because the Christ who justifies is the Christ who gave his life as a payment for sin in fulfilment of the demands of the law. Therefore the righteousness of God is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is his obedience which is the righteousness that justifies, not that of the believer. Paul brings this out in Romans 5:19–20: ‘Through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men…through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.’ Note that the work of Christ is described as an act of righteousness. When this is compared with Paul’s statement in Romans 5:9 that we are ‘justified by his blood’, we see that the righteousness that justifies is not the righteousness of the individual but the righteousness of the person of Christ in his work of atonement. It is the righteousness of Another. It is also important to note that this righteousness is not limited to Christ’s work of atonement but includes his entire life of obedience. Christ fulfils the law as man’s substitute positively in that he lived a perfect life of obedience and negatively in that he paid its penalty. James Buchanan gives this explanation of the meaning of justifying righteousness and why it is called the righteousness of God:
If we would understand the reason why it is called ‘the righteousness of God,’ we must bear in mind that there was a twofold manifestation of righteousness in the Cross of Christ: there was first a manifestation of the righteousness of God the Father, in requiring a satisfaction to His justice, and inflicting the punishment that was due to sin; and to this the Apostle refers when he says, that ‘God set forth Christ to be a propitiation’—’to declare His righteousness, that He might be just, and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus;’ there was, secondly, a work of righteousness by God the Son—His vicarious righteousness as the Redeemer of His people… ‘This is the name whereby He shall be called, The Lord our righteousness’ (Jer. 23:6). He is so called on account of the righteousness which He wrought out by His obedience unto death; for this righteousness is expressly connected with His Mediatorial work…By His vicarious sufferings and obedience, He fulfilled the Law both in its precept and its penalty; and is now said to be ‘the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth’ (Rom. 10:3–4) (James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh: Banner, 1961), p. 319).
Paul says that this righteousness is given as a gift by faith, to the ungodly, completely apart from works. If it is a righteousness that is given apart from works and to the ungodly, then it must be independent of human works. It is a completed righteousness that is given and received. This is not something that one works to achieve. This is very important in helping us to understand the meaning of justification. Paul’s phrase ‘apart from works’ is another way of stating the Reformation teaching of faith alone. This simply means that there is no work an individual can contribute to his justification. Some have suggested that when he uses the phrase ‘by the works of the law’, Paul is not referring to the moral law but to the Jewish ceremonial law. They suggest that while we must repudiate the Jewish ceremonial law as a basis for justification that this is not so for the moral law. However, in the book of Romans, Paul uses the term law to include both the ceremonial and the moral law of God. In Romans 7:7–13 he specifically repudiates the moral law as a basis for justification. Because the righteousness which justifies is a gift of God, justification then is also a gift. The righteousness that justifies us is something completely external to us. This is why the Reformers called it an ‘alien righteousness’. Justification is a forensic (legal) term which deals with acquittal from the claims of the law. It is based upon the atonement of Christ which was offered in the context of legal demands. Again, we see the direct connection between justification and the atonement in Romans 5:9 which states that we are ‘justified by His blood.’ Justification is a declaration of a righteousness based on the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Justification does not mean to ‘make righteous’ morally, but to declare to be righteous legally. It has to do with a person’s legal status before God the holy Judge. This is the particular meaning the word justification has within the overall context of salvation. It means to be acquitted from guilt, to be set free from condemnation and to be fully accepted by God. There are two Greek words in the New Testament, both derived from the same root, which are translated by the words righteousness (dikaiosune), and justify (dikaioo). Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament defines dikaioo as: ‘to declare, pronounce one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be; to declare guiltless one accused or who may be accused, acquit of a charge or reproach; to judge, declare, pronounce righteous and therefore acceptable.’ The noun dikaiosune means: ‘The state of him who is such as he ought to be, righteousness; the condition acceptable to God; denotes the state acceptable to God which becomes a sinner’s possession through that faith by which he embraces the grace of God offered him in the expiatory death of Christ.’ Leon Morris makes these important observations on the meaning of the word justification as it is used in scripture:
It is necessary to say a word…about the verb dikaioo which in the New Testament is translated ‘to justify’ but which has been understood in more ways than one. Since verbs in -ow commonly express a causative idea it is urged by some that dikaioo must mean to ‘make righteous’. But it is to be noted in the first place that verbs of this class denoting moral qualities do not have the causative meaning (e.g. axioo means ‘to deem worthy’ not ‘to make worthy’ and similarly with homioo, hosioo etc.), and in the second, that in any case the meaning of a word is to be determined in the last resort by the way people used it. We cannot at this distance in time say that, since a verb is formed in such and such a fashion, therefore the Greeks must have understood it to mean so and so; all that we can do is to note how they did in fact use it, and deduce from that what it meant to them. And by this test dikaioo certainly does not mean ‘to make righteous.’ In Greek literature generally it seems to mean ‘to hold right’, ‘to deem right’, and thence ‘to claim or demand as a right’, and ‘to do a man right or justice’…Neither the word structure nor the use of the verb outside the Bible, then, gives countenance to the idea that ‘to make righteous’ is the meaning we are to understand. When we turn to those passages where the verb ‘to justify’ occurs, there can be no doubt that the meaning is to declare rather than to make righteous…the basic idea is one of acquittal…The Hebrew and Greek verbs remind us of processes of law, and take their essential meaning from those processes of law. That a declaratory process rather a making righteous is meant is clear from the fact that the verb is applied to Jehovah (Ps. 51: 4), for it is an impossible thought that He should be ‘made righteous’ in any sense other than ‘made righteous before men’ or ‘declared righteous’. When we turn to the noun and the adjective from this root we find the same essentially forensic significance. The righteous are those acquitted at the bar of God’s justice, and righteousness is the standing of those so acquitted. Nobody who has taken the trouble to examine the ninety–two examples of the use of dikaiosune in the New Testament will doubt that the forensic use is primary…When, for example, St. Paul speaks of the righteousness which is by faith, he is not thinking in terms of mercy in men, but of their legal standing before God (Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 225-226, 234-235, 249).
The declarative nature of justification is taught in Romans 5:19 where we read: ‘For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous.’ The terms ‘made sinners’ and ‘made righteous’ do not refer to our moral condition but to our status or position before God. It refers to a reckoning in the mind of God. Before a man is even born he is reckoned to be a sinner. The word translated ‘made’ is kathistemi. It means to set down as, to constitute, to declare. It is used twenty–two times in the New Testament and in most cases it means to be appointed to some kind of position. Thus, to be justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ is to be reckoned as righteous in God’s eyes, to hold the status or position of righteousness, to be acquitted from the condemnation and judgment of the law based on the once–for–all atonement of Christ. God declares that believers have fulfilled the demands of the law in Christ. Believers are united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection so that his experience and standing before God becomes theirs (Rom. 6:1–5). In other words, the believer who is united to Christ is imputed with his righteousness. This actually constitutes him righteous judicially before God because this righteousness is a real righteousness. As John Murray observes:
Justification means to declare to be righteous—it is a judgment based upon the recognition that a person stands in right relation to law and justice…How can God justify the ungodly?…God’s justification of the ungodly presupposes or comprises within itself—that is to say the action of God denoted by justification of the ungodly—another action besides that which is expressed by our English word ‘declare righteous’…This action is one in which he actually causes to be the relation which in justification is declared to be. He effects a right relation as well as declares that relation to be. In other words he constitutes the state which is declared to be. Hence the justifying act either includes or presupposes the constitutive act. This alone will make the declaration to be a declaration according to truth…It is not only through the one righteous act (Romans 5:18) but it is by the bestowal of the free gift of righteousness…That is to say justification has not only righteousness as its proper ground, it is not only that God has respect to righteousness, but it is also a bestowment of righteousness and, because so, there is the assurance of life…Now if there is an imputation of righteousness, such righteousness meets the requirement of establishing a new relationship which not only warrants the declaration but elicits and demands it and ensures the acceptance of the person as righteous in God’s sight (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume II, pp. 206–208).
In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul states, ‘But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus who became to us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.’ Here Paul uses the word righteousness as a synonym for justification and separates justification from sanctification as concepts. Justifying righteousness is a separate concept and work from that of sanctification though they both come under the general heading of salvation. Justification and sanctification are not interchangeable terms in the New Testament. They are two entirely different aspects of the overall work of salvation. Paul maintains that the righteousness that justifies is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘By His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us…righteousness.’ He does not say that Christ is the source of grace by which a person may become righteous through sanctification. He uses the term sanctification for that. When he uses the word righteousness with respect to justification, the apostle is underscoring the wonderful truth that in Christ God provides a completed righteousness, apart from the works of man. This righteousness instantly and forever justifies an individual by conferring upon him a legal state of eternal righteousness. It is a righteousness which has fulfilled the just demands of the law of God. Just as man’s sin was imputed to Christ, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the true believer. The whole concept of imputation is essential to the doctrine of justification. This is not the invention of the Protestant Reformers but the express teaching of scripture itself. In Romans 4:5–6 Paul writes: ‘But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works.’ The Greek word translated ‘reckon’ in these two verses is logizomai. It means to ‘reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over; hence…to pass to one’s account, to impute’ (Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament). This word is used forty–one times in the New Testament. It means a mental evaluation, conclusion or judgment regarding a particular issue. It is an accounting term. Paul illustrates this in his letter to Philemon when referring to Philemon’s former slave Onesimus: ‘But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account’ (verse 18). Charge that to my account! In other words, impute that to me. Joel Beeke describes the relationship between justification and imputation:
Justification is…a sister–concept to imputation. As a forensic (i.e. legal or judicial) term, justification is the act of God’s sovereign grace whereby He imputes to the elect sinner, who is in himself guilty and condemned, the perfect righteousness of Christ, acquits him on the ground of Christ’s merits of all guilt and punishment, grants him a right to eternal life, and enables him to lay hold of and appropriate to himself Christ and His benefits. Imputation signifies to credit something to someone’s account by transfer, i.e. God transfers the perfect righteousness of Christ to the elect sinner as a gracious gift, and transfers all of the sinner’s unrighteousness to Christ who has paid the full price of satisfaction for that unrighteousness. By means of this mutual transfer the justified sinner is viewed by God as if ‘he never had had, nor committed any sin,’ but had himself ‘fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 60; cf. Romans 4:4–6; 5:12–19; 2 Corinthians 5:21) (Don Kistler, Ed., Justification By Faith Alone (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), pp. 85–86).
So the basic thrust of Paul’s teaching on imputation in Romans 4 is this: In justification God imputes or credits a completed righteousness, the obedience of Another, to the one who comes by faith alone to Christ. This results in an eternal state of forgiveness and acceptance with God. On the basis of that imputed righteousness God comes to a settled evaluation about the individual—he is judged to be righteous. Historically, the whole concept of imputed righteousness for justification has been mocked by the Roman Catholic Church. She calls it a legal fiction. This is a serious charge. But in labelling this a legal fiction the Roman Catholic Church brings this charge against God himself. If the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is fiction then the imputation of our sin to him is also fiction. But the imputation of righteousness is the explicit teaching of scripture. In justification there is a real righteousness and a real imputation, just as in the atonement Christ bore in reality our sin and died a real death. This is not a legal fiction. There are today Roman Catholic apologists who repudiate any notion of justification as a forensic concept. For example, in the spring of 1995, CURE (Christians United For Reformation) hosted a debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics on Justification. Robert Sungenis, one of the Roman Catholic participants, made the following comments on justification:
The concept of juridical justification at the initial point of justification has no biblical support. The only thing close to a courtroom scene for salvation is at the end of time when Christ stands as the Judge of all. The biblical context of initial justification has as its New Testament background a relational, familial context. Though it is granted that words for righteousness or justification can etymologically be shown to have some juridical basis, this is primarily in the Old Testament legal theocracy and even then eighty–five to ninety percent of these uses are moral, not juridical. The main question is, What does faith have to do with jurisprudence? The answer is, nothing. But it has everything to do with relationships. The words legal, forensic, contract, verdict, acquitted, defended, court, courtroom, lawyer, juridical, jury, judge, do not appear in reference to our initial justification with God in the New Testament. When the New Testament is describing justification or salvation it never uses a courtroom scene. It uses many other paradigms but not a courtroom. Instead, Abraham is called the friend of God when he is justified, not the acquitted defendant. There is the enemy/friend paradigm (Rom 5, 9 and James 2:23). There is the marriage/widowhood paradigm (Rom. 7:1–4). There is the bondwoman/freewoman paradigm (Gal. 4:21ff). There is the legitimate/illegitimate son paradigm (Heb. 12). There is the Jew/Gentile paradigm (Gal. 2, Eph. 3). And finally there is the adoption paradigm (Rom. 8:15, 23; Rom. 9:4; Eph. 1:5) (‘What Still Divides Us? A Protestant & Roman Catholic Debate’, Tape #WSD-05, Roman Catholic Critique of Sola Fide, Christians United For Reformation, Anaheim, CA).
In light of the fact that justification is grounded upon the atonement of Christ (which Galatians 3 tells us is performed in the context of the demands of the law of God) these assertions by Robert Sugenis are patently false. To actually suggest that scripture nowhere represents justification in a legal sense is to completely misrepresent the teaching of scripture. The cross of Christ is in fact one big courtroom scene. It is a vindictaion of the justice of God, as Romans 3 teaches, enabling God to be a just Judge while mercifully justifying sinners. While it is true that in salvation believers are adopted into the family of God, coming to know him as Father, it is equally true that the basis for such a relationship is the satisfaction of the justice of God who is a righteous and holy Judge. The following comments from leading Reformers sum up the Reformation understanding of the meaning of justification based on imputed righteousness and the finished work of Christ in atonement in these words:
Let us explain what these expressions mean: that man is justified in God’s sight, and that he is justified by faith or works. He is said to be justified in God’s sight who is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and has been accepted on account of his righteousness. Indeed as iniquity is abominable to God, so no sinner can find favor in his eyes in so far as he is a sinner and so long as he is reckoned as such. Accordingly wherever there is sin, there also the wrath and vengeance of God show themselves. Now he is justified who is reckoned in the condition not of a sinner, but of a righteous man; and for that reason, he stands firm before God’s judgment seat while all sinners fall. If an innocent accused person be summoned before the judgment seat of a fair judge, where he will be judged according to his innocence, he is said to be ‘justified’ before the judge. Thus, justified before God is the man who, freed from the company of sinners, has God to witness and affirm his righteousness. In the same way, therefore, he in whose life that purity and holiness will be found which deserves a testimony of righteousness before God’s throne will be said to be justified by works, or else he who, by the wholeness of his works, can meet and satisfy God’s judgment. On the contrary, justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore 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. Therefore, ‘to justify’ means nothing else than to acquit of guilt him who was accused, as if his innocence were confirmed. Therefore, since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by the confirmation of our innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III, Chapter XI.2–3, pp. 726–728).
Because an eternal, unchangeable sentence of condemnation has passed upon sin—for God cannot and will not regard sin with favor, but his wrath abides upon it eternally and irrevocably—redemption was not possible without a ransom of such precious worth as to atone for sin, to assume the guilt, pay the price of wrath and thus abolish sin. This no creature was able to do. There was no remedy except for God’s only Son to step into our distress and himself become man, to take upon himself the load of awful and eternal wrath and make his own body and blood a sacrifice for sin. And so he did, out of the immeasurably great mercy and love towards us, giving himself up and bearing the sentence of unending wrath and death. So infinitely precious to God is this sacrifice and atonement of his only begotten Son who is one with him in divinity and majesty, that God is reconciled thereby and receives into grace and forgiveness of sins all who believe in his Son. Only by believing may we enjoy the precious atonement of Christ, the forgiveness obtained for us and given us out of profound, inexpressible love. We have nothing to boast of for ourselves, but must ever joyfully thank and praise him who at such priceless cost redeemed us condemned and lost sinners (Martin Luther, ‘Epistle Sermon, Twenty–fourth Sunday After Trinity’ (Lenker Edition, Vol. IX, #43–45. Found in A Compend of Luther’s Theology, Hugh Kerr, Ed., (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), pp. 52–53).
It is our part and duty ever to remember the great mercy of God; how that, all the world being wrapped in sin by breaking of the law, God sent his only Son our Saviour Christ into this world to fulfil the law for us; and by shedding his most precious blood, to make a sacrifice and satisfaction, or (as it may be called) amends, to his Father for our sins, to asuage his wrath and indignation conceived against us for the same…In our justification is not only God’s mercy and grace, but also his justice, which the apostle calls ‘the justice of God’; and it consisteth in paying our ransom and fulfilling the law. And so the grace of God doth not exclude the justice of God in our justification, but only excludeth the justice of man, that is to say, the justice of our works, as to be merits deserving of our justification…It pleased our heavenly Father, of his infinite mercy, without any our desert or deserving, to prepare for us the most precious jewels of Christ’s body and blood, whereby our ransom might be fully paid, the law fulfilled, and his justice fully satisfied. So that Christ is now the righteousness of them that truly do believe in him. He for them paid their ransom by his death. He for them fulfilled the law in his life. So that now in him and by him every true Christian man may be called a fulfiller of the law; forasmuch as that which their infirmity lacketh, Christ’s justice hath supplied (Thomas Cranmer, ‘An Homily of the Salvation of Mankind by Only Christ Our Saviour from Sin and Death Everlasting‘. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), Volume XXVI, pp. 262, 264).
The judicial basis of our relationship with God is also seen in the New Testament teaching on the New Covenant. The New Covenant is a term used to describe the new relationship with God that is effected for man through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The whole concept of covenant is at the heart of God’s revelation to man. The New Testament is but a record of the fulfilment and continuation of the Abrahamic covenant of the Old Testament (Rom. 4:1–4; Gal. 3:6–29). In this Covenant God brings man into a new relationship with himself in which man experiences forgiveness of sins, an experiential knowledge of God and a new heart sanctified unto God. This covenant is mediated through the person of Jesus Christ on the basis of his once–for–all atonement for sin. The New Testament frequently speaks of the ‘blood of the covenant.’ For example, Hebrews 9:15 states: ‘And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of eternal life.’ And Jesus, when he initiated the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of his sacrificial death, put it in covenantal terms when he said: ‘This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins…This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’ (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20). These passages and others make it clear that apart from Christ’s death, given as a payment for sin in atonement to God, there would be no new covenant, no New Testament dispensation. The whole basis for our relationship with God is legal in nature because it is grounded solidly upon the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace and Faith
To understand imputed righteousness is to understand grace and faith. Grace is the means by which everything necessary for man to receive forgiveness and eternal acceptance has been provided as a gift by God through the work of his Son. It is not a work achieved or merited by man in any way. It is accomplished by Christ alone. It is his righteousness, not man’s. Therefore from a biblical standpoint, grace alone means by Christ alone, received by faith alone and not by works. As Paul puts it:
‘If it is by grace it is no longer on the basis of works otherwise grace is no longer grace.’ (Rom. 11:6).
‘For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.’ (Rom. 3:28).
Repeatedly, scripture tells us that justification is not by works, either before or after a person has come into the experience of grace. For example Titus 3:5 states: ‘He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy.’ Paul states that works are not the basis for our salvation, grace empowered or otherwise. Why is this so? Because Christ has done all the work necessary for justification:
‘By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.’ (Eph. 2:8–9).
Some Roman Catholic apologists point out that the verb form for justify is found in the aorist, present and future tenses in the New Testament. They maintain this proves that justification is not a completed work but an ongoing process which is dependent upon the human works of sanctification. However such assertions are laid to rest by Galatians 2:16 where all three verb tenses are found in relation to justification:
Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified (present) by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified (aorist) by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified (future).
Paul states emphatically that no man is ever justified by works, whether it be the past, present or future. He is writing to the Galatians who have already experienced the grace of God. He is warning these believers that justification is not a process based upon human works, even works in cooperation with grace, but solely upon faith in Christ at a point in time. Paul makes it clear in this same letter that if a gospel of justification by works is preached it will result in the corrupting and distorting of the true gospel of grace:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for another gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6–9).
Works as a basis for justification must be repudiated and an exclusive trust in and reliance upon the person of Christ and his work of atonement alone for salvation must be exercised if one is to have saving faith. This is the Reformation truth of sola fide or faith alone. It is another way of stating the truth of Romans 3:28: ‘For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.’
The Place of Works
Is there any place for works? The bible answers in the affirmative. In the book of James we read:
What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
In light of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith how are we to understand James? Was Abraham justified by works in addition to faith? Does this support the Roman Catholic position that justification should include works? To properly interpret James there are a number of important principles to keep in mind. In Romans, Paul deals with the nature of justification. In James the issue is the nature or character of saving faith. James addresses the issue of dead faith, as opposed to living, saving faith. Dead faith is ‘faith’ that makes a profession but it has no effect on the life, what many call today, easy–believism, dead orthodoxy or mere intellectual assent. Dead faith produces no fruit, no accompanying works to testify to the veracity or reality of the professed faith—put simply, no holiness. So while Paul deals with the issue of legalism as it relates to justification, James deals with antinomianism as it relates to faith. The key phrase in James 2 is ‘show me your faith’ (Js. 2:18). The only way true saving faith is demonstrated is through works. ‘Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ (Js. 2:18). True saving faith will always be demonstrated or accompanied by works of love and holiness. According to Romans 4:2 Abraham was justified by faith apart from works. He was declared righteous by God. But how do we know he truly had saving faith? Because his works revealed and vindicated his faith before men. His faith bore the fruit of love for God. In that sense his works justified his faith. Faith alone justifies but the faith that justifies will always give evidence of its existence, bearing fruit in holiness of life. In Matthew 11:19 we are told, ‘Wisdom is vindicated (justified)by her deeds.’ The word for vindicated here is the Greek word justify. It simply means that wisdom is revealed or demonstrated as true wisdom by the evidence of its works. The works do not make it wisdom. Wisdom exists, but the works reveal its existence. It is the same with true saving faith. Justification and faith already exist but the reality of saving faith is always evidenced by works. The Dictionary of New Testament Theology puts it this way: ‘In the expression, faith working through love (Gal. 5:16), love is specified as the means by which faith becomes visibly operative or effective’ (Colin Brown, Ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Volume III, p. 1182).
This is further amplified by the apostle John in his first epistle. John states, ‘By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments…no one who is born of God practices sin, for His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God.’ (1 Jn. 2:3; 3:9). John is teaching that a righteous life is the evidence of the new birth. If an individual is truly united to Jesus Christ he will give evidence to that reality by living a righteous life. The works of righteousness do not produce the new birth or the knowledge of God, rather they give evidence of it. Jesus teaches the same truth. In John 15:8 he says, ‘By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.’ (Jn. 15:8). The fruit of righteousness gives evidence or proof that one has come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The disciple relationship already exists and the works are evidence of the reality of that relationship. Likewise Jesus disabuses the Pharisees of the notion that they were the children of Abraham when he states that if they were, they would do the deeds of Abraham (Jn. 8:39). Instead they give evidence of the fact that they are the children of Satan (Jn. 8:44). He says that if God were truly their Father they would love him (Jn. 8:42). In other words, a person’s true nature is revealed by his attitudes and life. The deeds do not create the nature but reveal its existence. Jesus teaches that a tree is known by its fruit (Mt. 7:16–20). The fruit does not create the tree but reveals the type of tree it is. Similarly, a righteous life is the obvious and inevitable result of true salvation. It is the fruit of union with Christ. This same truth is expressed by Paul when he says, ‘Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.’ (Rom. 7:4). First comes the relationship with Christ and then follows the fruit as an evidence of the union. After stating in Ephesians 2:8–9 that salvation is not by works, Paul goes on to say: ‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ (Eph. 2:10). Though works are not the basis for our salvation, we are saved to bring forth works which glorify God. Philip Melanchthon, the Reformer and close friend and associate of Martin Luther, makes these comments on the relationship between faith and works:
Paul is here (1 Corinthians 12–13)…demanding love in addition to faith. This is what he does elsewhere in all his letters, demanding good works from believers, i.e. the justified…And when he says that he who has all faith but no love is nothing, he is right. For although faith alone justifies, love is also demanded…But love does not justify because no one loves as he ought. Faith, however, justifies…There is also the passage in James 2:17: ‘So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ He did well to say this, for he was reprimanding those who thought that faith is merely a historical opinion about Christ. For just as Paul calls one type of faith ‘true,’ and the other ‘feigned,’ so James calls the one kind ‘living’ and the other ‘dead.’ A living faith is that efficacious, burning trust in the mercy of God which never fails to bring forth good fruits. That is what James says in ch. 2:22: ‘Faith was completed by works.’ Therefore, the whole point that James is making is that dead faith…does not justify, but a living faith justifies. But a living faith is that which pours itself out in works. For he speaks as follows (v. 18): ‘Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’ But he does not say: ‘I will show you works without faith.’ My exposition squares most harmoniously with what we read in James: ‘So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ Therefore, it is obvious that he is teaching here merely that faith is dead in those who do not bring forth the fruit of faith, even though from external appearances they seem to believe (Philip Melanchthon, ‘Love and Hope.’ Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), Volume XIX, p. 112).
Thomas Cranmer, expresses a similar view:,
The first entry unto God, good Christian people, is through faith; whereby…we be justified before God. And, lest any man should be deceived for lack of right understanding thereof, it is diligently to be noted that faith is taken in the Scripture two manner of ways. There is one faith which in Scripture is called a dead faith, which bringeth forth no good works, but is idle, barren, and unfruitful. And this faith by the holy apostle St. James is compared to the faith of devils, which believe God to be true and just, and tremble for fear, yet they do nothing well, but all evil. And such manner of faith have the wicked and naughty Christian people; ‘which confess God,’ as St. Paul saith, ‘in their mouth, but deny him in their deeds, being abominable and without the right faith and in all good works reprovable…This dead faith therefore is not that sure and substantial faith which saveth sinners…The true, lively, and unfeigned Christian faith…is not in the mouth and outward profession only, but it liveth, and stirreth inwardly in the heart. And this faith is not without hope and trust in God, nor without the love of God and of our neighbours, nor without the fear of God, nor without the desire to hear God’s word, and to follow the same in eschewing evil and doing gladly all good works (Thomas Cranmer, ‘A Short Declaration of the True, Lively and Christian Faith.‘ Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), Volume XXVI, pp. 272–273).
Sanctification cannot be separated from justification in the overall experience of salvation. When an individual is justified he begins the process of growth in holiness called sanctification or fruitbearing. The bible teaches nothing of justification without sanctification. If there is no fruit, then as James says, the professed faith is dead and will not save. A faith that lacks the fruit of obedience is nothing more than intellectual assent and therefore, dead orthodoxy. Paul states, ‘There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (Rom. 2:9–10). And Jesus said, ‘Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.’ (Jn. 5:28–29). Jesus and Paul are not teaching salvation by works. Rather, they are stressing the necessity of works as the evidence of saving faith, the visible criteria by which a true relationship with Christ is judged to exist. It is the relationship, not works, which is the basis for entrance into the kingdom of God. What about rewards? This issue was a point of contention between the Reformers and Rome due to Rome’s theology of merit. Roman Catholicism consistently misinterprets scripture regarding rewards by equating them with eternal life. For example, Roman Catholic theologian, Ludwig Ott, states:
According to Holy Writ, eternal blessedness in heaven is the reward…for good works performed on this earth…Jesus promises rich rewards in Heaven to those, who for His sake are scorned and persecuted: ‘Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven’ (Mt. 5:12). The judge of the world decrees eternal reward for the just on the ground of their good works: ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me to eat (Mt. 25:34). In Christ’s discourses the reward motive frequently recurs (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: Tan, 1974), pp. 264–265).
It is clear from the teaching of Jesus that he does promise rewards for faithful service. For example he states: ‘For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward’ (Mt. 9:41). In another place he says: ‘Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Mt. 5:11–12). Note, however, that the rewards spoken of here are not heaven or eternal life. As we have seen, eternal life is a free gift (Rom. 6:23). It cannot be earned or merited by human works. Rewards on the other hand are for faithful, persevering service. John Murray helps us to understand the relationship between justification and works and rewards:
While it makes void the gospel to introduce works in connection with justification, nevertheless works done in faith, from the motive of love to God, in obedience to the revealed will of God and to the end of his glory are intrinsically good and acceptable to God. As such they will be the criterion of reward in the life to come. This is apparent from such passages as Matthew 10:41; 1 Corinthians 3:8–9, 11–15; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Timothy 4:7. We must maintain therefore, justification complete and irrevocable by grace through faith and apart from works, and at the same time, future reward according to works. In reference to these two doctrines it is important to observe the following:
- This future reward is not justification and contributes nothing to that which constitutes justification.
- This future reward is not salvation. Salvation is by grace and it is not a reward for works that we are saved.
- The reward has reference to the station a person is to occupy in glory and does not have reference to the gift of glory itself. While the reward is of grace yet the standard or criterion of judgment by which the degree of reward is to be determined is good works.
- This reward is not administered because good works earn or merit reward, but because God is graciously pleased to reward them. That is to say it is a reward of grace.
In the Romish scheme good works have real merit and constitute the ground of the title to everlasting life. The good works are rewarded because they are intrinsically good and well–pleasing to God. They are not rewarded because they earn reward but they are rewarded only as labour, work or service that is the fruit of God’s grace, conformed to his will and therefore intrinsically good wnd well–pleasing to him. They could never be rewarded of grace if they were principally and intrinsically evil (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, pp. 221–222).
Works do not save or justify. But a saved life will demonstrate itself in a life of sanctification and faithful service to the Lord. This was the consistent teaching of the Reformers and all those who are true to their teaching. In teaching faith alone neither Calvin or Luther ever implied that one could be justified and yet go on living in sin. They taught what scripture teaches: that when an individual is saved he is eternally justified, but also regenerated, sanctified and adopted. Justification is but one aspect of the overall work of salvation, as is sanctification. Although both doctrines come under the general heading of salvation they are not interchangeable terms. They are separate blessings which flow simultaneously from union with Christ. The Protestant Reformers affirmed the biblical teaching of imputed righteousness for justification as well as, and in addition to, the necessity for regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for sanctification, but without confusing the terms. They consistently taught that justification is by faith alone but by a faith evidenced by or which necessitates the works of sanctification. So the emphasis of the Reformation was upon a twofold understanding of righteousness. Firstly, in justification there is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ and secondly, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there is the living out of the righteousness of sanctification. This is well expressed, for example, by Martin Luther:
Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore the Apostle calls it ‘the righteousness of God.’ in Rom. 1:17: For in the gospel ‘the righteousness of God is revealed…as it is written, ‘The righteousness man shall live by faith.’ This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sin in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he…Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone—while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ—is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone. The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness. This is the manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, of which we read in Gal. 5:24: ‘And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’ In the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear toward God…This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence…This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and this its whole way of living consists. For in that it hates itself and does not seek its own, it crucifies the flesh. Because it seeks the good of another, it works love. Thus in each sphere it does God’s will, living soberly with self, justly with neighbor, devoutly toward God (Martin Luther, ‘Two Kinds of Righteousness.’ Taken from Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), pp. 156–158).
The English Reformer, John Hooper, says:
It is no profit to say sole faith justifieth, except godliness of life follow, as Paul saith: ‘If ye live according to the flesh, ye shall die (John Hooper, ‘A Declaration of Christe and His Offyce.’ Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), Volume XXVI, p. 206).
Thus, while the Reformation teaching of faith alone (sola fide) means a repudiation of all works as necessary for justification, it is not a repudiation of works in general. The Reformers unanimously insisted on the necessity for the works of sanctification.
The Results of Justification
Justification is an eternal declaration of God which happens the moment an individual is united to Christ. It is not a process dependent upon the works of an individual but an instantaneous act of God. The sinner is translated out of a state of sin and enmity with God into a state of forgiveness and acceptance with him. He is reconciled to and has peace with God (Rom. 5:1). He is set free from all judgment and condemnation (Rom. 8:1). The believer is brought into a filial relationship with God through the New Covenant. He is adopted—made a child of God (Rom. 8:15–17; Eph. 1:5; 1 Jn. 3:1–2). It is not uncommon in the polemics between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism for Roman Catholics to misrepresent the true teaching of the Reformation. All too often Roman apologists give the impression that imputed righteousness in justification is the totality of the Protestant teaching on salvation—that it includes nothing more. There is rarely any mention made that the true position of the Reformation is an affirmation not only of imputed righteousness for justification but also of sanctification, regeneration and adoption. Even a cursory reading of Reformed theology reveals this to be the case. For example, with respect to the teaching of adoption the Westminster Confession states:
All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption: by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have his name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as a father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XII. Cited in A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner, 1958), p. 191).
When an individual is truly saved he is adopted into the family of God. But adoption is based upon the truth of justification. Scripture makes this point when it says: ‘But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.’ (Gal. 4:4–5). Our adoption as sons can only become a reality if Christ redeems us from the law by bearing its curse for us. Our entire relationship with God, then, is grounded upon a legal declaration sealed in blood—the blood of the Lamb of God who gave himself as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin to satisfy the just claims of the law of God. The believer moves out of the courtroom of God the Judge into the home of God the Father only because Another, our Lord Jesus Christ, stood in his place to bear the consequences of a transgressed law.
Because justification is completely dependent on the work of Christ, it is perfect and eternal in nature. Christ imparts eternal life (Jn. 3:16), and his work accomplishes an eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12) and provides an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:4). Once a man is justified, therefore, he cannot lose that grace. The scriptures speak with certainty about the assurance of eternal salvation. Jesus himself makes the following statements:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word , and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (Jn. 5:24). My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, 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 the Father’s hand (Jn. 10:27–29).
Justification is a state of forgiveness and acceptance with God which is as perfect and eternal as Christ’s own standing. It cannot be improved upon and it cannot be lost:
Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:33–35, 37–39).
William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He is the author of: The Christian: Following Christ as Lord, Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism and The Church of Rome at the Bar of History. He is a founder of Christian resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism.