JUSTIFICATION. What is it? Where does it come from? It’s a doctrine that has divided the Church for roughly 500 years and has been an ongoing issue for even longer. It isn’t a subject that can be brushed to the wayside or compromised on. It is a matter of extreme importance and we all need to know where we stand on it. There are some doctrines that require a firm line to be drawn in the sand, and I argue this is one. Of course, if a line is to be drawn, it needs to be in accordance with Scripture.
R.C. Sproul has defined justification as “a legal action by God by which He declares a person just in His sight.” Dictionary.com defines it as “to declare innocent or guiltless; absolve; acquit.” Yet, I know plenty of people who live decent lives and seek to help others. What could such good people possibly need to be justified of?
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.
For the wages of sin is death,
Scripture makes it quite clear that none of us are innocent. We have all fallen prey to sin and all of us are blemished before the glory of God. In fact, Scripture declares that, because of our sin, we are all worthy of death and Hell. None of us are righteous enough to deserve Heaven. According to God’s Word, we are all wretched sinners. How is it then that we can possibly be declared justified by God? Is it something we work toward? Is it simply by His love that He overlooks our sin? Is it temporal and constantly being renewed with a chance of forfeiture, or is it a permanent and once-for-all action? This is what I hope to make abundantly clear.
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Why the apparent contradiction? Is it by faith alone or is it by faith plus works? While only having one true answer, the response will vary depending on who you ask. Ask a Protestant and he will tell you one thing. Ask a Catholic and he’ll tell you another. To really understand the doctrine of justification, we also need to understand what it is not.
The Roman Catholic view of justification is seen as taking place in the sacraments. Roman Catholicism has seven sacraments that are delivered through priests alone. They are baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, confession, marriage, Holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. The one I want to highlight is baptism.
Roman Catholics and Protestants hold a very different view of baptism. While most Protestants hold that it is symbolic (NOTE: there are some heretical groups that believe in baptismal regeneration and some paedobaptists who believe baptism to be more than symbolic) of our dying to self and rising in Christ (an outward sign of inward faith), Catholics believe baptism justifies an individual of all prior sins and makes him, at that very moment, cleansed before God.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sec 1, Ch 3, Art 2
Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.
Here, we see baptism is spoken of being the thing that inwardly justifies. It is important to note that baptism is also viewed as being an act of faith, so, while being a work, it is also viewed as a work done in faith that was already present in the individual. In other words, according to Catholicism, justification is achieved through both faith and works, with neither one being sufficient in and of itself apart from the other.
Not only does the Catholic Church believe in justification through both faith and works together, they also teach that it can be lost through the practice of mortal sins. The Council of Trent was held during the Reformation in the 1500’s with the primary purpose of stopping the Reformers who were protesting the Catholic Church. In fact, this is where we get our name as Protestants and it’s important to know the history behind it. James Montgomery Boice says, “the evangelical church is either dead or dying as a significant religious force because it has forgotten what it stands for.” Trent made many declarations against the Reformers in an attempt to slow down the crowds who were rapidly converting to Protestantism.
Council of Trent
Against the subtle wits of some also, who “by pleasing speeches and good words seduce the hearts of the innocent” (Rom. 16:18), it must be maintained that the grace of justification once received is lost not only by infidelity, whereby also faith itself is lost, but also by every other mortal sin, though in this case faith is not lost; thus defending the teaching of the divine law which excludes from the kingdom of God not only unbelievers, but also the faithful [who are] “fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, railers, extortioners” (1 Cor. 6:9f.; 1 Tim. 1:9f.), and all others who commit deadly sins, from which with the help of divine grace they can refrain, and on account of which they are cut off from the grace of Christ.
In other words, if you commit infidelity, or unbelief, you lose not only your faith but also your justification. If you commit any other mortal sin, you may still have your faith but your justification will be lost and, therefore, must be regained through the deliverance of the sacraments by a priest as well as other acts such as penance.
As I said in the beginning, the doctrine of justification is the key doctrine that divided the Church during the Reformation. Because of this, you can probably imagine the Protestant belief is quite different. While the Catholic belief is a hybrid system of faith plus works, the Protestant belief has always been justification by faith alone, or sola fide.
The French Reformer, John Calvin, believed that all sins are mortal, by the simple fact that Romans 6:23 tells us the wages of sin is death. However, he argued that, while being worthy of death, no sin could cause a believer to lose his justification. The large difference is that Catholics teach man must actually BE inwardly just, while Protestants teach that man must be DECLARED just by God (Romans 3:24; Romans 5:1; Romans 5:9; Galatians 2:16).
Works do not justify. We’re justified apart from the Law. Justification comes only by faith through the redemption in Christ Jesus by His blood! There is no other way! It’s by the grace of God alone that He chose to send His innocent and spotless Son to die on the cross so that we could become heirs of the kingdom of God instead of heirs of Hell.
“On the cross Christ paid the price for our sin. This was both a work of expiation and propitiation. By expiation he “took” away” our sins from us. By propitiation he satisfied the justice of God by undergoing the penalty for our guilt.” — R.C. Sproul
In Christ, we are declared spotless. His blood has washed us clean. However, righteousness is not the same as cleanliness. We’re called to obey God and to be imitators of Him (Ephesians 5:1). Of course, none of this is possible within ourselves. This is yet another act of Christ. Whereas Catholic doctrine teaches an inherent or infused justice which makes the person truly inwardly righteous, Protestantism teaches of imputed righteousness in which the reward of Christ is given to us and our wages of sin are given to Him.
2 Corinthians 8:9
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.
Christ was worthy of all of the kingdom of Heaven, yet He gave it up so that we could acquire it. It is not by our works that we earn merit. It’s solely by our faith in Christ that His merit is imputed unto us and that our justification remains.
“…the righteousness of Christ considered as the merit of his mediatorial work must ever continue, even when it is imputed to us, to belong primarily, and, in one important respect, exclusively to him by whom alone that work was accomplished. It is his righteousness in a sense in which it can never be ours: It is his, as having been wrought out by him; and it is ours, only as it is imputed to us.” — James Buchanan
“By faith the justified person receives all the blessings of God due to Jesus for his perfect obedience. In this regard Christ is our righteousness.” — R.C. Sproul
The Roman Catholic doctrine of “faith plus works” simply does not jive with Scripture. To claim we become just by any act other than the imputation of Christ’s merit is to say we are saved by something other than Christ alone. Salvation is not in the hands of priests nor is it in the sacraments. There’s not enough of our own merit in the world to save us and the blood of Christ alone is sufficient. As Sproul has simply put, “We’re justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.”
Knowing the Scriptural stance on the cause of justification is critical to the Gospel message. However, knowing whether it’s temporal or permanent is equally as important. Hebrews 6 is a much debated passage that both sides appeal to for their beliefs. Read closely:
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
Those who believe in losing your justification and salvation appeal to this passage by saying those who have been saved can fall away and never again to be renewed unto God. This is NOT what is being said in this passage! In fact, this interpretation completely destroys everything the Gospel teaches of justification and the completed work of Christ.
The claim from the “you can lose it” camp is based on the phrase “those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” They say one cannot partake of the Holy Spirit or be enlightened unless they have first been saved. This is based on verses such as 1 Corinthians 2:14 which says,
1 Corinthians 2:14
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
The problem is that the above verse is being taken out of context to support an erroneous argument. While a non-Christian will never have the Spirit reside in them, this doesn’t mean they are incapable of partaking of the blessings of the Holy Spirit or being affected by Him.
so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Here, we can see what is commonly referred to as common grace or common blessing, and that even the evil men receive a certain level of blessing from God. Now, let’s move on to something even more specific in 2 Peter 2:20-21:
2 Peter 2:20-21
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.
It would be easy to think this is referring to a back-slidden Christian. However, the full context shows that this isn’t referring to a believer at all. It’s referring to a false prophet. Despite this, it uses phrases like “escaped defilements of the world” and “knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” It even speaks of them as having known the way of righteousness. Again, all this would lead someone to believe it’s speaking of one who has lost his salvation: his justification. But we can know this isn’t the case in the reference to false prophets. It’s merely referring to someone who has all the head knowledge possible yet doesn’t clinch the eternal bond of the Spirit. While it’s true that only a Christian can truly understand the things of the Spirit, it’s not true at all to say only a Christian can taste the things of the Spirit. A great point was made by Paul in 1 Corinthians on this subject.
1 Corinthians 7:14
For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.
The use of the word “sanctified” doesn’t mean that the unbelieving spouse is saved based on the believing spouse’s faith. It simply means they receive the blessing of the Spirit through the faith of the believing spouse. They may not receive salvation or the forgiveness of sins but they do receive a blessing nonetheless. It’s in this sense that a non-believer can still partake of the things of the Spirit without ever having obtained regeneration/salvation from the Spirit.
So what does it mean by “those who have once been enlightened”? The Greek word used for enlightened is phōtizō and is being used in the sense of being intellectually enlightened to Spiritual truths. The people being spoken of in Hebrews 6 had been made aware of Spiritual truths and they saw them for what they were but it does not give any indication to a response to the call of salvation. Furthermore, nowhere in Scripture is this phrase used to speak of salvation. It simply means they had mental knowledge of the things of the Spirit. To some extent, I’m sure they also tasted the things of the Spirit, albeit never tasting salvation or regeneration. It would be impossible to have been so involved in the things of the Church and not have been affected. Even the people following Christ in Matthew 5 were affected by the Light yet they did not believe despite this.
I don’t believe it’s referring to believers who have fallen away and lost their salvation and justification because of some mortal sin or infidelity. I fully believe it is referring to unbelievers who are on the outside edge of salvation, so to speak. They have all the knowledge they need. They’ve seen the power of the Spirit and have received a partial blessing of what the Spirit has to offer. If there was ever a time to believe, this was it! If one fell back after all this, it would be lost on them. There would be a sense of hopelessness; an impossibility that they would ever see Christ for who He is. With all that knowledge, if one still rejected Christ, all hope would be lost that they would ever see the Light.
Again, in Hebrews 6:6 where it says, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame,” it doesn’t refer to those who were once saved and had fallen away, but rather those who were on the fence and finally stood their ground among those Jews who crucified Christ. Even if they never would have physically done so, the author of Hebrews does not water it down when he places them in the same category. It shows the seriousness of their rejection. We know Christ was crucified once for all (1 Peter 3:8) as the final act of completion, never again to be repeated. They never chose Christ even after all they had tasted and, in their rejection, had lost all hope of ever choosing Christ and now stood among the rest of the crucifers.
Once we have been justified by Christ alone, there is no turning back. If one turns back, it’s because they never truly had saving faith to begin with. They were as the first three seeds in the parable of the seed and the sower. Eternal life is exactly that — eternal! (John 10:27-29; Romans 5:10; Romans 8:34, 38-39; Philippians 1:6; 1 Peter 1:4-5)
So, going back to the very beginning of this post:
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
By now, we should clearly be able to understand that it’s not the works which help justify us but that it is the works which show evidence of our salvation and justification. If works do not follow salvation, it’s evident that salvation is absent. If salvation is absent, justification is naturally absent as well.
Sola fide (salvation/justification by faith alone) is a key doctrine that cannot be ignored. It is essential in the life of every believer. Without it, there is no salvation, no justification, and no glorification. To stress its importance, I would like to close with one final quote by R.C. Sproul:
“Without sola fide one does not have the gospel; and without the gospel one does not have the Christian faith. When an ecclesiastical communion rejects sola fide, as Rome did at the Council of Trent, it ceases being a true church, no matter how orthodox it may be in other matters, because it has condemned an essential of the faith.” — R.C. Sproul
~ Travis W. Rogers