Justification by Faith Alone
What do you think is the greatest comfort to the Christian heart? That
Christ died for us? That we are going to heaven? That God loves us? Those are
all very important comforts. I'm not going to try and rank them to see what is
most comforting. But have you ever considered the great comfort that comes from
knowing that you are justified? Justification is the doctrine that answers the
question: "How can I, a sinful human being, be made right with a holy God?" It
is a very comforting and encouraging doctrine because if you are justified, it
means that you have peace with God. Romans 5:1 says "Therefore having been
justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." So
one of the greatest comforts of the Christian heart is that we are justified and
therefore we have peace with God.
But let me ask a different question. What do you think is the greatest
discomfort to the unbeliever? That he might be lonely? That he might
lack a sense of purpose in life? That everything in his life is going haywire?
I don't think that these things even come close to being the worst of his
problems. I believe that the greatest discomfort and terror unbelievers have
is that they are not justified and are therefore at war with a
holy God. If you do not believe in Christ, you are at war with God and God is
at war with you--whether you know it or not. You are at war with God because
the apostle Paul says that non-Christians have minds that are hostile toward
God's and are in open rebellion against His commandments. And God is at war
with you because that same apostle says that the longer you refuse to submit to
God, the more wrath that God is storing up for you in the day of judgement. In
fact, John 3:36 says that the wrath of God abides on you right now. It is a
very solemn thought, but there very well could be many people here tonight that
have the wrath of God resting upon them because of their sins.
Tonight if there are any people who are not trusting in Jesus Christ for
salvation and therefore have God's anger targeting them for destruction, I hope
that you will understand the great danger that you are in. But I also hope to
show you tonight that there is great hope for you. I hope that you will
understand how to be justified before God. More than that, I hope that I can
show you the greatness and glory of God so that you will desire to throw up the
white flag of surrender and come to Christ for justification. You can escape
the fury of God's anger if you come to God, in Christ, for salvation.
For the Christians who are here tonight, I hope that you can come to
more fully understand and appreciate your salvation. I hope that this truth of
justification will come to be a great comfort to your heart and will greatly
affect the way you walk with God. And I hope that it will cause you to greatly
praise and marvel at God for the awesome work of your justification.
The Importance of Justification
Before digging in, I want to first establish more clearly the importance
of this truth. We have already seen its extreme importance in that it deals
with how sinful people can escape the anger of God that is against them for
their sins. But there are also many other reasons that it is important.
First, this truth is at the heart of the gospel. In fact, it is
impossible to properly understand the gospel unless you understand this truth.
Martin Luther, the great reformer of the 1500s, said that "Without the doctrine
of justification the world is utter death and darkness." Martin Luther's view
is very important because he so vigorously defended this truth in the Protestant
Reformation. For the early years of his life Luther was a Roman Catholic monk.
He believed that he had to somehow earn his own justification through his own
efforts. So he was zealous to make sure that he did enough days of fasting,
enough religious pilgrimages, and enough good works in order to earn favor with
God. Sometimes he would spend six hours a day confessing his sins to the
priest. Luther said later that at this point in his life he was literally
killing himself with all of his religious duties. But he just couldn't find
peace with God. Then, while meditating on the book of Romans, he finally
realized that justification comes from God through faith alone. He did not have
to jump through all of these circus hoops to satisfy God. This opened up to Him
the comfort and joy of God's grace, and he was saved. Luther's understanding
wasn't new (it had been a part of the Christian faith since the beginning), but
at this point in history the great truth of justification had been distorted by
most people in the church. So when Luther made his understanding public, it
fueled what is known as the Protestant Reformation--the greatest revival in the
history of the church. One of the battle cries during this reformation was that
justification is by faith alone.
Justification is so important that Luther came to say that this is the
doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Unfortunately, much of the church
today doesn't even know about this doctrine.
John Calvin, another Reformer, said "Justification is the principal
ground on which religion must be supported, so it requires greater care and
attention. For unless you understand first of all your position before God, and
what the judgement is which He passes on you, you have no foundation in which
your salvation can be laid, or on which holiness towards God can be reared."
More recently, the second greatest revival in church history was also
started as a result of this truth. In the 1700s, God used Jonathon Edward's
preaching on justification to start what is now known as the great awakening.
This truth sparks revival because it is so focused on Christ and what He has
done, not ourselves. Unfortunately, in our quest for revival today we are
focusing to much on ourselves and our own experience, rather than Christ. Until
we stop focusing on issues like "How can I have a good Christian social life,
how can I deal with stress, how can I find a good job," and start asking "How
can I be made right with God," we will not have genuine revival.
Having seen the importance of this truth, let's examine it more closely.
Justification may be defined as a legal act of God, at the
instant we believe in Christ, in which He 1) forgives our sins, 2) imputes
Christ's righteousness to us, and 3) declares us to be righteous in His sight,
thereby 4) delivering us forever from all condemnation, guaranteeing for us a
title to heaven.
There is a lot there, but its not all that complicated. I want to make
three general remarks about this truth, and then take a more specific look at
the elements of our definition.
General overview of justification
First, "Justification is a legal act of God..." By this I
mean that justification is a legal declaration, not a surgical
operation. We will see more about this in a little bit. For now it is
enough to know that justification does not mean that God makes you
righteous, but that God declares you to be righteous. While a surgeon
operates inwardly on you to make you better, a judge simply declares what your
status is before the law. He doesn't make you righteous, but if you are
righteous he declares you accordingly. Likewise, justification is not an act of
God in you, but an act of God about you. It is a change of our
standing before God, not a change of our character.
The word justify is often used this way in the Bible. For example, Luke
7:29 says "when they heard this all the people and the tax collectors justified
God, having been baptized with the baptism of John." It says that the people
justified God. Clearly, this could not mean that they made God righteous.
Rather, it means that they declared God to be righteous.
This is also evident from the verses where justification is paralleled
with condemnation. Condemnation does not mean to make wicked, but to declare
that one is wicked. So when we see justification and condemnation contrasted in
Romans 8:33, 34 (which says "It is God who justifies, who is it who condemns?")
we conclude that just as condemnation does not make a person wicked, but
declares them to be wicked, so also justification does not mean to make
righteous, but to declare righteous.
Second, notice that "Justification is a legal act of
God..." It is God who justifies. Again, Romans 8:33-34 says "who shall
lay a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one
who condemns?" But I want you to also notice here that justification isn't the
only thing that God does. God is also the one who condemns. If you are not
justified by God, you will be condemned by God. God is the one who will do one
or the other to you. So your standing before God is in God's hands.
I'm sure that all of us here recognize that we are sinners, and
therefore deserve to be condemned. That is not good news, because God condemns
with a vengeance. Hebrews 10:31 says "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the
hands of the living God." Revelation 14:10-11 details the terrifying future
awaiting those who refuse to worship the true God: "If anyone worships the beast
and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he also
will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in
the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the
presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of
their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night,
those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his
Justification in Jesus Christ is the only way to escape being
condemned. In order to escape the wrath of God, you must look to Christ to be
saved. Romans 8:1 says "therefore there is now no condemnation for those who
are in Christ Jesus."
Third, "Justification is a legal act of God, at the instant we
believe in Christ..." Thus, it should be easy to see that justification is
not a process, but occurs in an instant. In the Scripture, justification is
referred to in the past tense (Romans 5:1, 9; 8:1, 32).
Now that we have our general overview, let's look specifically at what
What specifically does justification invovle?
"Justification is a legal act of God, at the instant we believe in Christ, in
which He forgives our sins..."
First, justification involves the forgiveness of our sins. This means
that God stops holding them against us and declares us "not guilty." Speaking
of justification, David says "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" (Romans 4:7-8).
But how can God justly forgive sins? It would be wrong for God not to
punish sin--what would you think of a judge who let all of the serial killers
and ax murders go free without so much as a day in jail? But God is not unjust
in forgiving us because He punished Christ for the sins of believers on the
cross. So God did not just overlook our sins, but punished them completely.
You deserve to be punished forever by God's wrath. But if you believe in
Christ, God punished Christ in your place with His wrath so that He did
not have to punish you. Christ endured the punishment that you deserve.
Romans 3:23-26 says "....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 of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just
and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." Because of Christ's death
for sinners, God is just in justifying sinners.
"...declares us to be righteous in His sight..."
Second, God declares us righteous. It is not enough just to have our
sins forgiven. That would only make us neutral in God's sight, whereas God
requires us to have a positive righteousness--the righteousness of having
perfectly obeyed His law. For example, I am not guilty of breaking the law in
Kentucky--I am innocent of their laws. I am "not guilty." But I am not looked
upon as having obeyed any of their laws, either. I am neutral to their laws.
God requires that His laws be obeyed. Therefore, God must not only declare me
to be "not guilty," but also must declare me to have perfectly fulfilled His
law. That is, God must declare me to be righteous in order to be in a right
relationship with Him. He does this in justification.
"...imputes Christ's righteousness to us [so that He can] declare us
to be righteous in His sight..."
But there is another problem here. We all are sinners and we break
God's laws every day. We are not righteous. So on what basis can God
declare us righteous?
One of the most obvious things should be that God does not declare you
righteous based upon your own good works--you don't have any! Romans 3:20 says:
"by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through
the Law comes the knowledge of sin." Trying to obey God's law will reveal that
you are a sinner, so it cannot justify you. But if you are not righteous, how
can God declare you righteous?
The answer is that God gives us the righteousness of someone else--Jesus
Christ. God declares you righteous based upon Christ's good works. That
is, God imputes to us the righteousness (moral goodness) of Christ.
What does impute mean? In this context, it means that you a
re given credit
something that you did not do. So when God imputes Christ's righteousness to
us, it means that He gives us credit for Christ's obedience--He transfers its
credit to us. You did not perfectly obey God. But Christ did. So God gives
you credit for Christ's obedience. It is not that Christ stops being righteous
when His righteousness is imputed to you, it is that He shares His
righteousness with you.
Earlier I said that Christ died to pay the penalty for your sins. The
Bible also teaches that Christ did not stay dead. He rose from the dead and
lives forever at the right hand of God. Our justification stems from the death
and resurrection of Christ: "He was delivered up because of our transgressions,
and was raised because of our justification" (Romans 4:25).
What is the difference between imputed righteousness and inherent
It is very important to recognize the difference between imputed
righteousness and inherent righteousness. This distinction is at the
heart of the matter. Inherent righteousness would be:
1. Good things you do for God.
2. Good things that God does in you.
It is not the ground of your justification. God does not justify you on the
basis of righteousness that inheres in you. That is, He does not declare
you righteous because He has first transformed you into a good person or because
you have done good works to earn righteousness before Him. God does not look at
you and say, "You've done a lot of good things, and you are a really good
person. Therefore, I declare you to be righteous." The ground of God's
declaration is not any works that you did on your own, nor is it any good
transformation that God has brought about in you. Instead, you are
declared righteous before God on the basis of someone else's
righteousness--Christ's--that God lays to your account and gives you credit
for. Imputed righteousness is something that is external to you and is given to
you by someone else.
Difference between Rome and the Reformation
This is the essential difference between the Roman Catholic Church and
the Protestant church. R.C. Sproul explains this well: "The Roman Catholic
view of justification [is that] God declares a person to be just when justice
(or righteousness) inheres in the person. The person, under divine analysis or
scrutiny, is found to be just. God justifies the just. ...By stark and radical
contrast the Reformation view of justification is that God declares a person
just based upon something [external to them], something not inherent in the
person: the imputed righteousness of Christ."
This is how it is possible for Christians to be, as Martin Luther said,
at the same time justified and yet sinners. Even though you are
justified, you are still a sinner. This is possible because justification is not
based upon what you inherently are (inherent righteousness), but is based upon
what Christ did for you and you are given credit for (imputed
Where is imputed righteousness taught in the Bible?
Romans 4:5 very clearly teaches that we are at the same time justified
and sinners: "Now to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who
justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." Notice that it
says "God justifies the ungodly." That is, justification respects the
ungodly. Therefore, justification cannot be based upon anything inherent in
us--because we are ungodly when we are first justified. Also notice that
justification is given to the one who does not work for it, but to the one who
believes. Therefore, you do not earn justification through good works.
Instead, it is given to you simply through faith.
We also know that this righteousness is imputed to us because of the
many verses which say that it is not our own righteousness, but God's
(specifically, Christ's) righteousness that justifies us. Jeremiah 23:6 says
that Christ's name is "the Lord our righteousness." 1 Cor. 1:31 also calls
Christ our righteousness. Romans 3:22 says that "the righteousness of God" is
available "through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." And in Phil 3:9
Paul says he counts all things to be loss for the sake of Christ, that He "may
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."
There are also many verses which speak of this righteousness as being
given to us, indicating that it is imputed. Romans 4:6 says that God "reckons
[or imputes] righteousness apart from works." Romans 5:17 says that believers
receive the "gift of righteousness" from Christ.
Finally, there are also many verses which say that this righteousness is
external to us--thereby indicating that it is not inherent righteousness
that saves us, but imputed righteousness. In Luke 19:9-14 Jesus condemns
those who "trust in themselves for righteousness." Isaiah 61:10 says "He has
clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of
righteousness." The beginning of the verses says that for this reason we should
"rejoice greatly in the Lord" and exult in Him.
Since this righteousness, then, is God's righteousness and not our own,
since it is given to us, and since it is external to us instead of inherent in
us, it is clear that it is imputed righteousness that serves as the basis of our
being declared righteous.
Imputed righteousness is a wonderful thing! It is God supplying
everything you need! And this is not just anyone's righteousness He gives you.
It is Christ's righteousness! Christ is of infinite value and honor. And if
you are a Christian, then Christ is the most important person in the world to
you. He is your favorite person. You cherish and love Him. So be amazed that
you are sharing in His righteousness!
Clearly, the concept of imputation is central to justification. It is
the basis of our being declared forgiven and of our being declared just.
God is able to forgive us our sins because He imputed them to Christ and
punished Him in our place. And God is able to declare us righteous because He
imputes Christ's righteousness to us. Christ gets the blame for our sins, we
get the reward for His righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5:21 brings out both of
these aspects very well: "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf,
that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
"...thereby delivering us forever from all condemnation, guaranteeing
for us a title to heaven."
Because justification involves forgiveness, being given Christ's
righteousness, and being declared righteous, we are thereby delivered from all
condemnation because there is no reason left for us to be condemned. If we are
justified we can never be sent to hell (Romans 8:1). Justification therefore
secures for us a title for heaven (Romans 8:31-32).
How justification relates to sanctification.
I've tried to make it very clear that justification is a change in your
standing before God, but not a change in your character. It is an act of God as
judge, not an act of God as surgeon. But do not take this all to mean that a
justified person will continue in sin. True, justification does not touch our
character or change us internally. But it is always given together with
sanctification--the process by which God makes us inherently righteous, not just
righteous in our standing before Him. God sanctifies all whom He justifies, and
therefore all justified people will live changed lives.
Both justification and sanctification are necessary to our final
salvation. Imagine a terminally sick criminal in prison. A pardon by itself
would not be enough for him--he would still die. But a cure by itself would not
be enough, either--he would still be in jail. He needs a pardon and a
cure in order to be completely rescued.
"Justification is a legal act of God, at the instant we believe in
If you are an unbeliever, I hope that you are asking in your mind: "How
may I be justified? I know that I am a sinner, and that because of this God's
terrible wrath is against me. I want to escape it and be saved. How can I be
justified?" I have good news. Justification is by faith alone!
If you try to earn justification by obeying the law, thinking that you
can make yourself good enough for God to accept you, you will not be saved
(Galatians 5:4). But if you recognize that you are not good, and look to Christ
alone for righteousness and a happy future, you will be saved (Romans 3:28; 4:5;
3:23-24; Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8-10). You must depend upon Christ alone for
salvation, not any of your own works. You cannot earn salvation in any way, or
add to Christ's righteousness. Christ is sufficient. He is enough. You simply
need to receive Him, and you will be saved. Titus 3:5, 6 says "God saved us,
not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to
His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit...that
being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of
But you need to recognize that one aspect of faith is repentance. You
cannot ask God for salvation without turning from your sin in order to trust God
for happiness. Faith is the act of turning to Christ for salvation. But just
as coming to the light implies coming out of the darkness, so also coming to
Christ involves coming away from sin. This doesn't mean that you have to clean
up your life before God will accept you. It means that you have to come to God
to clean up your life for you. You must turn away from sin and to Christ.
Since faith is a coming away from sin and a coming to Christ for
happiness and salvation, everyone who trusts Christ for salvation will lead a
changed life. You cannot expect to be saved and yet continue whole-heartedly in
your life of sin. But we need to remember that while good works always follow
justification, but are not the basis of it.
1. Faith --->justification + works
2. NOT faith + works --->justification
All of us here tonight need to ask ourselves, Who are you trusting:
yourself, or Christ?
Faith does not earn justification, but unites us with justification
There is one more thing we need to keep very clear about faith: it is
not something worthy of merit that earns us justification. It is connects us
with Christ's righteousness, but does not earn us Christ's righteousness.
Faith is an act, but it is not a work. In other words, God doesn't give
justification because of any value in your faith--because your faith is a such a
great thing that it deserves reward--but because it is how you are united to
Christ. For example, when I get married in the spring, Heidi will not have
access to my money because she deserves it, but simply because that's what goes
along with the marriage relationship. Someone has said "God did not ordain
faith to be the instrument of justification because of some particular virtue
in faith, but because faith is self-emptying and has no merit in itself." Faith
is only as good as its object. It has no value in itself. We are justified not
because of what faith is, but because of what our faith lays hold of--Christ.
Horatius Bonar has said: "Faith is not work, merit, or effort; but the cessation
of all these, and the acceptance in the place of them of what another has
done--done completely and forever."
Finally, how shall we apply this truth? If you are a Christian, keep
looking to Christ and take comfort and confidence in the fact that you have
peace with God (Romans 5:1). In my own life, I have found that it gives us
strong security, comfort, and confidence before God to know that while we are
not perfect in ourselves, we are nonetheless considered perfectly righteous in
His sight. This allows us to have access to God, while maintaining humility for
our sins. And it allows us to have confidence before God without pride in our
own righteousness. Since this truth is so central to our salvation,
understanding it will cause us to know God better and appreciate our salvation
more. And if we want true revival in our day, we must emphasize this truth--as
we saw at the beginning.
If you are not a Christian, if you are not trusting in Christ alone for
salvation, you should see the danger that you are in--being at war with God.
But if you also see the glory of this truth of justification by faith alone in
Christ alone, then raise up the white flag of surrender and stop fighting with
God. Come to Christ to end the war and be at peace with God! There is no need
for you to continue fighting God. You might say, "Yes, I want to come to
Christ, but I've done so many things that God won't accept me anymore." But I
have good news for you: the terrible sins of your past have nothing to do with
your justification! Justification is by faith, not works! God's
grace is greater than your sin! Jesus said "he who comes to me I will never
cast away." Or you might think "I'm so ungodly and sinful, God would never
justify me." I have good news for you too: God justifies the ungodly! Or you
might say "I have no righteousness of my own to make myself acceptable to God."
But I have good news for you as well: you don't need any righteousness of your
own! Christ supplies all of the righteousness that you need! But what if
someone says "I am detestable in God's sight. I'm so rotten and miserable in my
sin that God abhors me"? I even have good news for this person: Christ will
clothe you in His righteousness and cover your shame. He will make you
beautiful in God's sight! Your sin does not need to keep you from God! God is
very forgiving! So look to Christ and be saved! Stop fighting God and start
trusting in His Son, Jesus Christ.
There is good news for all of us here tonight: we can be justified
through faith alone and have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Let
us seek the Lord while He may be found.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
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