Justification by faith alone is one of the most fundamental concepts in the Christian faith and gets right to the heart of the gospel. It’s all about how sinful (unrighteous) people – you and I – can be considered righteous by a holy God. Justification was a major theme of the reformation 500 years ago , and John Calvin said that it was the ‘main hinge on which religion turns’.
A legal term
So what is justification? To begin with, it is helpful to look at a simple definition.
Justification is a legal term and in theology refers to the legal declaration that God has forgiven someone of all their sins and counts them as righteous in his sight.
Setting the scene – why is Justification necessary?
Before we go any further, we need to understand why justification is necessary. To do this, we’ll set the scene by comparing our own human nature with God’s divine nature. An important word here is righteousness. God is holy, righteous and just (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 145:17) and his just nature makes two demands:
- His law must be kept perfectly (see Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10)
- All sin – the breaking of the law (1 John 3:4) – must be punished (see Romans 6:23)
Therefore, in theory, if we could perfectly keep the law we would be justified before God. However, in reality, we all fail on Point 1, breaking every aspect of God’s law in one way or another. This means that we are subject to God’s wrath and deserve to be punished (Point 2). The punishment God has decreed for sin is death and separation from him for ever in hell. This is all summarised in the diagram below.
Only righteous people, those who have perfectly kept God’s laws can be united with him – how then can sinners like us ever be righteous and go to heaven? Can we work so hard at keeping the ten commandments for the rest of our lives that it balances out our sins? Of course not, and even if we could, we cannot hide those sins we have already committed. Its not a case of being 51% righteous, we need to score 100%. So, how can we escape God’s anger and the punishment due to us for our sins?
The fact is, we can’t do anything to fix the situation. On top of this, God cannot simply forgive and forget our sins on a whim as this would go against his own just character and he would cease to be God.
It seems a hopeless situation. Amazingly, though, whilst it looks like an unsolvable problem to us, God in his grace and mercy has provided a solution. This is through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, justification is an act of God – as the Apostle Paul writes, God is both ‘just and the justifier‘ (Romans 3:26).
How are we justified?
There are two equal & opposite parts to this, which can be pictured as a transaction. Between them, these meet the two demands of God’s just character:
1 – Perfect Obedience: Jesus’s righteousness is credited to our account (see Romans 4:6-8; Romans 5:17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:30).
Whilst on the earth, the Lord Jesus lived a sinless life, perfectly keeping every part of the law of God. At the new birth, when a person is converted, and they trust in him, his perfect righteousness is given to them – the theological term for this is imputed righteousness. It means that when God looks at a Christian he no longer sees their sins, but rather sees the perfect righteousness of Christ. In this way he counts or declares them righteous.
2 – Punishment of Sin: Our sins (past and future) are credited to Jesus’s account (see 2 Corinthians 5:19-21; Galatians 3:13).
When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, all the sins of his people were given to him to carry and he bore the punishment for them – our sins were imputed to him. In this way God’s requirement for justice, for sin to be punished, was satisfied. Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf was acceptable to God only because he was completely sinless himself and God showed his acceptance when Jesus rose from the dead .
Not only does this transaction enable us to be accepted as righteous before God – as someone who has perfectly kept the law – it also satisfies his demand that all sin must be punished.
What about the ‘by faith alone’ bit?
This concerns how we receive justification – it is through faith alone. We cannot contribute to our justification in any way, but rather are justified the moment we trust in the Lord Jesus as our saviour. The Bible is very clear on this point (see Romans 3:24-28 and Galatians 2:16).
We are not justified because of any good works we have done or will do – by trying our best as it were. This includes being a ‘good’ person, or more religious ‘works’ such as being baptised. Equally we are not justified because God sees our own faith and rewards us for it. Rather we are justified because the God given gift of faith enables us to trust entirely on the Lord Jesus (see Ephesians 2:7-9 and Titus 3:4-7). Our faith adds nothing to what Christ has done for us – his life, death and resurrection – it simply trusts that what he did was for us personally.
This does not mean that good works are not important, far from it – the Apostle James makes it clear that good works (a changed life) are a necessary sign of true saving faith (see Faith#2: Object, Outcomes and Opposites and read James 2 for more on this).
Justification vs Sanctification
Justification is the way God deals with our guilt in a legal sense. It is not concerned with how someone actually becomes holy – God does that through the work of sanctification. Whilst justification and sanctification are distinct acts of God, founded on the work of the Lord Jesus, they are both necessary and indeed cannot be separated; someone who is justified is also sanctified and vice versa. We’ll look a bit more at sanctification in a future Theology|Basics post.
A simple summary
All the above is succinctly summarised by the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.Westminster Shorter Catechism
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