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.

Defining Justification
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 name."

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 justification involves.

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 for 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 righteousness?
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 righteousness).

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 Christ..."
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 eternal life."

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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