This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. Justification by faith is a whole-Bible doctrine.
Some Christians may be surprised to learn that the doctrine of justification by faith is not only found in the New Testament but in the Old Testament. Genesis tells us that Abraham, in response to God’s promise, “believed the LORD, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Job sought to justify himself before God and in the end renounced his own righteousness (e.g., Job 32:2; 42:1–6). David was a man after God’s own heart, and yet he speaks of the blessing of justification apart from works: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1); “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2). Isaiah prophesies that the servant of the Lord will “make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). And Habakkuk teaches us that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), a truth which he also exemplified in his own life (Hab. 3:16–19). Finally, Jesus himself teaches this doctrine in his parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, a parable he told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
Thus, justification by faith is a doctrine taught by the whole Bible. But it is most clearly taught in Paul’s letters, which leads to my second point:
2. Justification by faith is articulated most clearly by the apostle Paul.
Most agree that the doctrine of justification by faith is seen most clearly in Paul’s letters, and especially in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. Paul sums up the point of his letter to the Romans in Romans 1:17: “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed by faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteousness shall live by faith.’” Note that I have modified the ESV slightly, changing “from faith for faith” to “by faith to faith” in order to show how “by faith” is used two times in the original Greek of this verse. Justification by faith is at the center of Paul’s argument in this letter. Similarly, it is at the center of Paul’s argument in Galatians, which is summarized nicely in Galatians 2:16: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
In this latter statement, we can see how Paul often contrasts justification by faith with justification by works of the law, which leads to my third point:
3. Justification by faith is another way of saying we are not justified by our works.
Justification by faith is the opposite of justification by our works of obedience to the law. As Paul says it in Romans, “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). He also draws an enlightening contrast between the worker and the believer: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4–5). Recall that Jesus also teaches that the one who is justified before God is not the one who boasts in his or her own righteousness but the sinner who cries out to God for mercy. Isaiah prophesies that our justification will come about through the suffering of the servant for our transgressions. And David teaches that “no one living is righteous before you.” This means that none of us will be justified by our righteous works or our obedience to the law. Rather, we are justified through faith in Christ.
But wait. If we are justified by our faith, isn’t that still something we do? Does justification by faith throw the onus of our justification on ourselves? This question leads to my fourth point:
4. Justification by faith does not mean that our faith is the ultimate cause of our justification.
Once again, Paul clearly teaches that we are justified by our faith (e.g., Rom. 3:28). And yet he does not mean by this that our faith is the ultimate reason we are justified. The ultimate reason that we are justified is this: Christ “was delivered up [by God] for our trespasses and raised [by God] for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Why then does Paul say that we are justified by our faith? Because our faith is the thing that rests upon and unites us to the Christ who was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. Faith is belief in the truth of the gospel as well as trust in the God of the gospel. It is an act of the whole inner person (the heart, Rom. 10:9), which is directed toward the word of God, God himself, and especially toward the crucified and risen Christ. But if our faith is the inward act of the heart believing and trusting in Christ, does this mean our outward actions don’t matter at all for justification? This question leads to my fifth point:
5. Justification by faith affirms that good works necessarily follow from faith.
The doctrine of justification by faith excludes our works of obedience to the law as a means or cause of our justification before God. But it also affirms that acts of love and good works necessarily follow from our faith as the fruit of our faith. For example, Paul teaches that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). And James teaches that our faith is “completed by” our works (James 2:22), concluding that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). On the surface, this seems to correct and even contradict Paul’s teaching about justification by faith. But it is better to see James correcting a misrepresentation of Paul’s teaching—one that would say our works don’t matter at all (cf. Rom. 3:8). In contrast, James teaches that our works do matter. Genuine faith must result in good works. Paul also teaches that justification by faith results in the inclusion of the Gentile believers as part of God’s people, which leads to my next point:
6. Justification by faith results in the inclusion of all believers as God’s people.
One necessary conclusion from Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith is the idea that God will therefore justify both Jewish believers and Gentile believers. If “all have sinned” and “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23–24), then it follows that God is the God not only of Jewish believers but of Gentile believers. Paul makes this point in Romans 3:29–30: “Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” Again, in Romans 4:9 he asks “Is this blessing [of righteousness apart from works] then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” Paul concludes strongly in favor of the latter option. The inclusion of the Gentiles is a point rightly emphasized by the New Perspective on Paul, although scholars who hold this view tend to wrongly see Gentile inclusion as the essential meaning of justification by faith rather than as a necessary result of the doctrine of justification by faith.
We see then that justification by faith has corporate entailments. Our justification before God by faith results in the creation of a family of faith that includes all believers, Jewish or Gentile, slave or free. Nevertheless, the doctrine still speaks fundamentally about the individual’s standing before God, something which has been captured well by its theological formations in church history. This leads to my seventh point:
7. Justification by faith is a Protestant doctrine.
The doctrine of justification by faith as we think of it today was formulated by Protestant theologians at the time of the Reformation. One thinks immediately of the formula “justification by faith alone.” This is a way of capturing the Bible’s teaching that we cannot be justified before God by our own righteous obedience to the law but only by our faith in the satisfaction and merit of Christ on our behalf. “Faith alone” does not mean that works do not matter at all, because Protestant theologians are quick to affirm that while justification is “by faith alone,” this justifying faith is “never alone” but is necessarily accompanied by love and good works. A second important formulation for the doctrine of justification is imputation. Because we are united to Christ by the Spirit and by faith, our sins have been imputed to his account, and his righteousness has been imputed to our account. Imputation is an attempt to capture the truth of biblical statements like 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here Paul does not mean that God actually made Christ a sinner but that he imputed our sin to Christ’s account, just as, in the parallel statement, he has imputed his own righteousness to our account.
Thus, as our doctrine of the Trinity is associated with the formulations of the Council of Nicaea, so our doctrine of justification by faith is associated with the formulations of the Protestant Reformation. But this does not mean that ancient Christians did not believe or experience the doctrine, which leads to my eight point:
8. Justification by faith is an ancient Christian doctrine.
The formal articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith stems from the Reformation of the western church beginning in the sixteenth century. But the doctrine of justification by faith had been taught and experienced by Christians long before the Reformation. We have already seen this in the Bible, but we also read of this doctrine in the church fathers. For example, in the second or third century defense of Christianity called the Epistle to Diognetus, we find this beautiful passage: “He [God] did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!” (Diogn. 9:2–5).
The promise of God in the gospel is that he will justify the ungodly and even bring the dead to life in Christ.
One can see here that justification by faith, as J. I. Packer says in his classic article on the subject, is a doctrine not only to be articulated but to be experienced. But unfortunately, it is also a doctrine that has been surrounded by controversy, which leads to my ninth point:
9. Justification by faith is an embattled doctrine.
It seems that the doctrine justification by faith often finds itself in the midst of controversy. Paul speaks of it in his conflict with false teachers who were giving the Galatians a hard time about not being circumcised. And Protestant theologians formally articulated it in their attempt to reform the Western church. We could say then it is a “polemic” doctrine, in that it is actively attacking false doctrine; but Paul and the Reformers were also defending the truth of the gospel—the gospel Paul had received from God (Gal. 1:11–12), and the gospel the Reformers received from Holy Scripture. Today, among evangelicals, the heirs of English reformation, this doctrine is still often embattled. This can be discouraging, especially in an era where it seems that conflict is waiting around every corner. But perhaps it can also be encouraging that we are not the first ones to be in conflict over this doctrine. Indeed, the most important doctrines in the history of the church are typically forged in the context of controversy.
But my last point reminds us that the articulation, experience, and even controversy of justification are worth it, because:
10. Justification by faith brings glory to God.
There is something about justification by faith that gives particular glory to God. Paul says this of Abraham’s faith: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20–21). The promise of God in the gospel is that he will justify the ungodly and even bring the dead to life in Christ. Thus, when we, like Abraham, acknowledge the gospel to be true and trust that God will do it, we give him particular glory through Jesus Christ. This is why he says that the great aim of hearing the gospel, believing it, and receiving the Spirit as the down-payment of our future inheritance is all “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14).
Once again we see that justification by faith does not draw attention to ourselves and our great faith but rather to Christ and God’s great work of redemption through him. “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
Kevin W. McFadden is the author of Faith in the Son of God: The Place of Christ-Oriented Faith within Pauline Theology.
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