The doctrine of justification by faith alone has been considered the focal point of Protestant theology. We see this during the beginning of the Reformation in Europe with Luther coming onto the scene. Luther is known for his view of indulgences, the preeminence of the Scriptures, and his emphasis on faith alone as the means of salvation. His journey began with his 95 theses (although the nailing of them on the Wittenberg church is probably not true). This set off a fire storm in Europe and would lead Luther to peel back the church’s teachings and eventually to the discovery of the Biblical teaching of justification by faith alone. The discovery of this truth was really assisted by scholarship at the time. There was a real push to go back to the ancient church fathers and the Greek language. Nick Needham points out,
“…the Christian humanists did not admire only Pagan writers of the classical age. They wanted to go back to all the sources of Western European civilisation, Christian as well as Pagan. So they dug afresh into the riches of the Greek New Testament and the early Church fathers.”2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 3, page 22
We see this with the printing of Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum in 1516 which was a publication of the New Testament in Latin and Greek and was the start of the Textus Receptus. It was a call back (in part) to the Greek language and not relying solely on the Latin Vulgate which was the standard Bible at the time (even though Erasmus’ primary end was not to create a Greek New Testament). This mindset of criticizing the church in this way did bring its share of critics and demonstrates the reluctance of some of those in academia to check the Scriptures as they knew it. This ad fontes frame of thinking is what led Phillip Melanchthon, Luther’s friend, and an expert in the Greek language, to help Luther in his development of the doctrine of Justification. Nick Needham discusses Melanchthon when he says,
“Melanchthon’s main subject at Wittenberg was Greek. He did more than anyone (even Erasmus) to spread the knowledge of the Greek language in German schools and universities. He also lectured on logic, ethics, and exegesis.”2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 3, page 76
So, we can see that Luther was accompanied by someone who was an expert in handling the New Testament. Melanchthon brought Luther to an understanding of this doctrine by pointing him to the underlying language of the NT (and avoiding the Vulgate’s understanding).
“Melanchthon’s study of New Testament Greek convinced him that what the New Testament means by “justify” (the Greek word dikaioo) is “declare righteous” in a legal sense…The understanding of justification in the Western medieval Church relied on the standard Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, which rendered the apostle Paul’s key Greek term dikaioo by the Latin iustificare…as meaning to make righteous, in the sense of moral transformation – the process by which a sinner is changed spiritually in his soul into a just, holy, godly person.”2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 3, page 88
In other words, a bad Bible translation led to poor theology.
But with this Luther saw the importance of the doctrine (although as Needham notes the doctrine did not become a central issue until later in Luther’s ministry). This doctrine is extremely important. It is a Gospel issue, and it appears that Luther saw this as well and he is said to have noted, “justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.” It truly is the centerpiece of our faith. It affects not only HOW we are saved, but the Atonement of Christ as well. What this means is if we get this doctrine wrong, our souls are at stake. Our eternal destiny is at stake. The Catholic Church in the Council of Trent (which was meant to combat Lutheranism that had taken hold of Europe) condemned this doctrine thereby sealing their fate as a devilish entity that is only fit for Hell.
“If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”Canon 9
“If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified…let him be accursed”Canon 12
“If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.”Canon 14
These “anathemas” are not just simple misunderstandings of the doctrine or coming from people who are growing in their knowledge of it. These are people who deliberately condemn the truth and go so far as to say they are damned to hell if it is taught. So, let us take heed as you read about this topic today. We must understand this doctrine and ensure that our views of it our consistent with the Scriptures.
I want to focus our attention of the doctrine as found in the book of Romans as this book lays out the most explicit commentary found in Scripture on the doctrine.
Righteousness is needed for all
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”Romans 1:16-17 (NKJV)
In verse 15 Paul says he ready to preach the Gospel to the church at Rome which he had already expounded upon which he already laid out in a general sense in verses 1-6. Then in verse 16 he begins to expound on what the Gospel is. Paul is eager to get the Gospel to those in Rome to remind the church of its power and its content. He begins by saying he is not ashamed of this Gospel that God has given him. Remember the message of the death of Christ was foolishness to the Greeks and to the Jews it was a stumbling block, but even with these things Paul remains firm in the fact that the Gospel is the means that has been ordained to save sinners. This is a good reminder to us to not be ashamed of that which the Lord has entrusted to His church. The church is to take the Gospel to all the world and to not shy away when we have opportunity to share it. Jesus talked about this in Luke 9:23-26. Jesus makes it clear that being ashamed of Him is not consistent with taking up your cross and following Him. We are to walk in a way that shows we are not ashamed of the truth of God. This does not mean that we must have the Gospel on our lips in every sentence or word we speak but it does mean that we should be willing to take up our cross and die to self for Christ being ready to have answer for anybody who asks about the hope that is within us. Paul then goes onto to say that Gospel is the power of God for salvation. The underling Greek word for power there is dynamis which means force, miraculous power, mighty work. The Gospel is the mighty work of God unto salvation. Again, Paul’s emphasis here is on God’s work and not man’s. This is critical to keep in mind. Man’s works and self-righteousness had no place in Paul’s thinking. The Gospel works mightily through the power of God particularly through the Holy Spirit. We see this all the way back in John chapter 3 where Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about what it means to be born again. He then goes on to say that the wind blows wherever it wishes meaning that the Spirit of God works however he pleases. He applies the Gospel to our hearts. We as fallen human beings though tend to look for power from God in other things. In Luther’s time this was in relics. The Catholic church made a show of displaying these relics of alleged authenticity claiming they had supernatural power. If only we could hold a piece of the cross of Christ, or see milk from Mary’s breast, or the beard of John the Baptist we would behold God’s power. Luther commented on this where he said,
“There sits that decoy duck in Rome with his bag of tricks, luring to himself the whole world with its money and goods, and all the while anybody can go to baptism, the sacrament, and the preaching desk. But the people say, “What, baptism? The Lord’s Supper? God’s Word? Joseph’s britches – that’s what does it!”Martin Luther, from as sermon given February 15, 1546
Luther’s point was that people were looking for God’s power in other things rather than in God’s ordained means. God does not need those things to show His power. He does this through His Gospel and this is what made Paul bold to preach it. God was the author and mover of this Gospel and nothing could stand in its way. This must be remembered as we discuss the doctrine of justification. This is a work that is foreign to us and does not originate in us through our volition or otherwise. Finally, in verse 17 we come to one of the most well-known phrases in all the book of Romans. The content of the Gospel is now being unpacked by Paul. He is now transitioning into his long exposition in the next four chapters on what this Gospel is and what it means for us. What is revealed in the Gospel according to Paul? The righteousness of God. What is this righteousness? This is the righteousness that is imputed to our account. It is the righteousness of another. And how is the righteousness revealed? From faith to faith. This is the sole instrument that brings this righteousness to us.
The Total Depravity of Man
Paul then transitions into the explanation of the Gospel itself. He lays the groundwork for the good news by laying out the bad. Remember that Justification is for those who have broken the law of God and stand condemned before Him. How bad are we? He shows us specifically, beginning in verse 18 and going through verse 25 .
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.Romans 1:18-25 (NKJV)
Paul here is laying out for us the universal sinfulness of man. As we move on to verse 24, we see how the wrath of God is revealed to fallen man. He does this by giving them over to their true desires. God lets these evil men continue in their sin in a deeper way and this a form of judgement upon them. This is what is known as “judicial hardening”. Paul will continue to explain and display the pitiful state of humanity in chapter 2.
Universal Sinfulness of Man
After Paul lays into the Jews about their hypocrisy as it relates to the law in chapter 2, the transition then turns toward the universal sinfulness of man. Let us look at Chapter 3:9-20:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” “Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit”; “The poison of asps is under their lips”; “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; Destruction and misery are in their ways; And the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.Romans 3:9-20 (NKJV)
Here Paul pulls no punches and goes right for the jugular. Men are depraved and so much so that they are not able to do that which is genuinely good in the sight of God. Oh, they might do so in an outward sense. But as it relates to God’s law, they really have not done that which is good and in fact they do not have the ability to since they are in the flesh (cf Romans 8:1-11). This helpless state leads us to the conclusion that the righteous we need and even the faith that we exercise must come from God and not from ourselves. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith notes:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner according to the word, nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, nor make a man meet to receive grace from God, and yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.2nd LBCF, Chapter 16, paragraph 7
The Gospel Explained
Later, in chapter 3, Paul moves onto the crux of his entire argument. He lays out the Gospel message itself in detail. Justification is discussed in explicit terms and is presented as part of the work of God in saving His people.
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.Romans 3:21-31 (NKJV)
Paul contrasts here the act of faith and works ensuring that this is a monergistic work. There is nothing here that would lead us to believe anything we do contributes to our salvation. Therefore, it is revealed apart from the law. What is the point of justification then? It is to satisfy God’s justice. Remember, we are not able to see God in our sinful state as was revealed to Moses in Exodus 33:20. God is holy, and we are not. God is so far removed from sin that it would kill us to be in His immediate presence. And because of God’s holiness, He requires perfection of every man woman and child (Leviticus 19:2, Leviticus 20:7, Matthew 5:48). And as has been demonstrated, we are not able to meet that requirement. We have fallen short of God’s law. And God, being the holy and just God He is, must punish sin. For God’s people, this punishment was placed on Christ as is discussed in our Romans 3 passage. Jesus was the wrath bearing sacrifice for our sins. He took on the wrath of the Father for us. This allowed God to be just when we are justified in His sight. We are declared, “not guilty” as if we have never sinned against God. The active obedience of Christ (obedience to God’s law though His life) and his passive obedience (his death) are therefore imputed to our accounts when we believe in faith upon Jesus. This wonderful doctrine is our hope and our rest.
Is Faith a good work?
An interesting question to consider given Paul’s commentary on faith: if faith is not a work that contributes to my salvation, then can it really be considered a good work? Yes, it can. Biblically speaking, everything we do is classified as good or evil. There is no act that we do that is not under one of those classifications.
For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil.Ecclesiastes 12:14 (NKJV)
Faith is something that we do. God does not believe God and its counted to us as righteousness. That would be preposterous and is not what Paul says at all. Verse 26 of Romans 3 says that God is the justifier of the one who puts their faith in Jesus. There is a clear distinction being made here between the work of God and the work of man. Now I want to be careful when I say that faith is a work that we do. I am NOT saying that faith contributes to our salvation. I am saying that our agency is not cancelled by the monergistic work of God in our salvation. We do something! But because the faith does not originate in us and because of sinful condition before God, it cannot be properly said that faith contributes to our salvation. Our faith is COUNTED as righteousness based on the work of another and is not attributed to us as is noted in the 2nd LBCF:
Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.2nd LBCF, chapter 11, paragraph 1 (emphasis added)
We can also gather this concept from Chapter 4 of Romans:
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.Romans 4:1-4 (NKJV)
The one who is trying to act based on something in him is then owed something. As opposed to using the gift of faith that is alien to the person. Philippians 1:29 makes clear that faith is alien to the believer where it says:
For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,Philippians 1:29 (NKJV)
This creates a huge problem for those who believe in libertarian free will or that we are first cause of all our actions or that faith can be exercised outside of God giving it and it is based on the person’s volition alone whether to accept or reject salvation. You must then ask them, is faith a good work? If faith is a good work and their position is true, then I must be able to do something good without God, thereby flatly contradicting what Romans 8:1-11 teaches about man’s state before God while in the flesh. I would then be righteous contradicting Romans 3:9—18. God would also owe me salvation since I would be working! It would not be based on the faith that brings imputation of the righteousness of another. This demonstrates the importance of having this doctrine correct. The implications could be damning.
This has been a brief primer on the doctrine of justification and is by no means exhaustive. Men better than me have written on this subject and lay it out in more detail. But this is at the heart of the Gospel without which there is not salvation. My hope is that you, the reader, would ensure that you have a biblical understanding of this doctrine and if you hold to a heretical view of it that you would repent.