Justification by Faith
To some, the pursuit of holiness is interpreted as rigid and unbending rules that one must live by to prevent God's wrath from being poured out on them, and to make heaven their home someday. An emphasis on God's grace is believed to lead one to sinful and irresponsible behavior based on the notion that God's unconditional love and forgiveness mean we can sin as we please with no consequences. These views of grace and holiness are misconstrued, making the two seem contradictory to one another. The truth of the matter is that holiness and grace are perfect compliments. Holiness must be anchored in the grace of God. Both elements are essential for our Christian lives, and we must properly understand the relationship between the two if we intend to endeavor on a life-long pursuit of holiness.
In our walk with God we commonly experience the "good day-bad day" mentality. When we have prayed, felt God's presence, and have no recollection of having committed any sin, we feel we have had a good day spiritually and subsequently feel confidence before God. On other days we might miss our time of communion with God, or did not feel His presence when praying, or slipped up and committed some sin. These days are bad days spiritually and we do not feel worthy of God's love. On these days we may question whether God still loves us, whether we are saved, and whether or not we can be forgiven. We have no confidence toward God and feel as though we can not approach Him for some period of time, usually the next day. On good days we feel that we have earned God's favor, thus we can be assured that He will answer our prayers and bless us in certain ways. On bad days we feel that we have forfeited all of the blessings of the Lord and any hope of having our prayers answered.
From our childhood onward we have had performance standards ingrained into our minds. To be acceptable to our parents and our society we had to perform in a certain manner and at a certain level. This mentality is carried over into our relationship with God and can have some very detrimental effects.
We know that we need to be "good," but how good is good enough? Is there ever a day that we earn God's favor by being good enough? We may think we can, but the truth of the matter is that we cannot. The first and second greatest commandments are to love God with all of our hearts, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). Do any of us perfectly obey these two commands? Does God grade on a curve to make our 90% a 100%? The obvious answers to these questions is no. This means that we need God's grace everyday. We are not saved by our good works, but by the grace we receive from God through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Everyday of our lives we must relate to God on the basis of grace through faith (Romans 5:2).. As Jerry Bridges has said, "Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace."1 We must live by grace every day, approaching God through faith in the work that Jesus accomplished for us at Calvary instead of by our own works, our own performance. The Biblical doctrine of justification deals with this subject.
Many have the misconception that the doctrine of justification by faith negates the new birth. In reality it explains how it happens. This teaching is so important because it demonstrates the proper relationship between faith and works in the role of salvation.
Justification by faith is the Bible's way of relating to God. The only way one can be saved is to be justified by faith. Unfortunately the doctrine is misunderstood by many. This is due, in part, to a misunderstanding of its real meaning amidst Christianity as a whole. Many have made it into the doctrine of easy-believism. Holiness people have attempted to combat the idea of salvation by mental-assent, by stressing the role of good-works in one's life. Unfortunately many times the truth becomes distorted by those who try to protect it the most because they stress one side of the issue so much that the other is neglected. In the end, both sides turn out to be wrong. I believe all too many people have experienced this scenario, stressing works to combat easy-believism to the point that they themselves now misunderstand the Bible's emphasis on faith. It is possible to elevate the Biblical teaching of good-works and holiness to the place that nearly bypasses the entire doctrine of justification itself. When one mentions that they are justified by faith, some will quickly respond that one's works matter too. The need for holiness is not disputed, but what is the relationship between faith and works? To understand what it means to be justified by faith will bring peace and joy to every individual in the church (Romans 5:1).
To understand this wonderful teaching we must first discover what it means to be justified. To justify means to declare one as righteous, or count them as righteous. The terms "righteous" and "justified" speak of the same thing.2 When God justifies someone, they are considered/declared righteous by Him, having their sin removed from their account. They become justified from their guilt of sin, and thus are freed from the penalty which is death (Romans 6:23). It is comparable to a judge in a court room. If he tries a man who has committed a murder, but declares him to be righteous, that man stands righteous in the sight of the law. Did he actually commit the murder? Yes, but the judge wiped his record clean by declaring that he did not. This is what God has done with our sin. He has taken it off of our account as though it never happened, even though we know it did. The murderer's works were not righteous, but the judge's decision acquitted him of all guilt and responsibility to the act, as far as the law was concerned.
Righteousness is imputed, not imparted. Those who believe that righteousness is imparted believe that the sinner actually becomes righteous in his nature and works. This is not in accord with the Biblical account. The Bible speaks of righteousness as being imputed to the sinner. This means that it is credited to him. It is put on his account as though he was actually righteous. The word "righteous" comes from the old English word "right wiseness." It simply means to be right, or to be in a right relationship to someone. To be justified by God, then, is for Him to declare a right relationship between a man and Himself.3 God counts us to be righteous. In other words we are righteous as far as standing with God is concerned, but we aren't necessarily righteous as far as our "works" are concerned. There is no change in our nature. We still have a sin nature. If righteousness was imparted to us, it would mean that we would have a whole new nature without sin. This is impossible because we read in I John 1:8, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." When we are considered righteous by God, He restores communication between us and Him; the communication we were barred from while lost in sin.
Upon receiving a right standing with God, one is able to further their relationship with Him. This is where Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and other activities come in. They strengthen and build the relationship with God. Since you are only considered righteous when God justifies you, and your nature is not actually righteous, growth in the area of holiness is still needed.
Righteousness is not to be confused with holiness. There is somewhat of a distinction between the two concepts. Righteousness is a standing that God imputes to you. We cannot be any more righteous than we were when God initially justified us based on our faith. Holiness is something we grow in (II Corinthians 7:1). It's the means by which we become more and more like Jesus. The process is called sanctification. It could be said that sanctification is the process by which we become what we are. By this I mean that we begin to live experientially the way that God has already declared us to be positionally.4 We begin to live in the manner that God has already declared us to be.
We must understand what faith is if we are ever going to comprehend what it means to be justified by faith. The word translated "faith" is the Greek word pistis. This word means to trust, or rely upon something/someone. In our case we rely on, and trust in God for every aspect of our lives, especially our salvation. This eliminates the notion that we are saved by a mere confession that we believe in Jesus and that He died for our sins. To believe in Jesus means that we completely rely on Him for our salvation. It is a lifetime of walking with Jesus, trusting Him for our salvation everyday. It has to do with our commitment to Jesus. To be justified by faith, then, means that God considers an individual to be righteous when they place their complete trust in Jesus' work on their behalf at Calvary, renouncing any ability of their own to save themselves.
It must be realized that man is a sinner and can do nothing to save himself. Mankind struggles with being able to believe that God has done everything necessary for his salvation. Man has always attempted to work (at least in part) for his salvation. We need not help Him in any way. As fallen humanity we are not even capable of being able to help out in our salvation. We need not, and cannot add anything to the cross of Calvary. Salvation is a sovereign work of God that we accept and receive by faith. Faith is the means by which we receive God's grace (Ephesians 2:8). There is not even the power in us to seek and obey God without His help (Romans 3:9-19). In our fallen nature is no good thing. We can desire to live for God, but the power to do so is not within us (Romans 7:5, 18). As a result, we must have God's mercy and grace to be saved. We did not move towards God for salvation, but He moved towards us first. It is not that we first loved Him, but He first loved us. Without God's mercy in forgiving us of our sin and giving us of His grace to keep us saved, we would never make heaven our home.
The source of justification is God's grace (Romans 3:24). The object of our faith is Jesus' blood that He shed at Calvary (Romans 3:22, 24-25). Finally, we receive our justification by means of faith (Romans 3:22, 25).
Calvary is the basis for of salvation. It was at Calvary that God was able to make atonement for the sin of the whole world. Every soul that has ever been born into the world needed Calvary for their salvation (Romans 3:25). Faith in Jesus' righteous blood that He shed on the cross is the only way to be saved. This is where the Jews stumbled. The offense of the cross (Galatians 5:13) was due to the fact that the Jews could not understand how one could be justified apart from works. For years they had tried to be justified in the sight of God by the works of the Law of Moses. They were commanded to obey the Law of Moses, but they were to obey it as a result of their faith in God for salvation. Unfortunately they put the cart before the horse, thinking they could be justified by their works, when in reality they could only be justified by their faith in God. The order is always faith and then works, resulting from faith.
Grace is not only God's unmerited favor towards man, but it is also the ability that God gives us to live for Him (I Corinthians 15:10; Philippians 2:13). One of the things that grace does for us is that it allows us to live holy before God (Titus 2:11-14). Grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and instead live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world. Grace is not a license to sin. This is dealt with in many areas of the New Testament. In Romans chapter six, Paul clearly relates that we should no longer sin, especially thinking that the grace of God would be more abundant by intentionally doing so.. Paul argued that upon baptism the dominion of sin in the Christian's life becomes broken. It no longer has the power to control the believer. This being true, argued Paul, Christians should no longer submit themselves to sin. This can be accomplished through reliance on the Spirit of God within (Romans 8). When God filled us with the Holy Ghost, He gave us a second nature. We already had the sin nature, but He added to our life His nature. He never eradicated our sinful nature, but simply gave us the ability to submit to His nature and overcome the sinful nature (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Romans 8:1-4). Grace gives us the ability to live above sin, not indulge in it!
So where do good-works fit into the doctrine of justification by faith? We know that justification by faith does not mean that we are free to disobey the Word of God. Romans 1:5 and 16:26 speak of "obedience to the faith." When one has true faith they will be obedient to it. Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Acts 6:7 declares that "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." We know that those who do not obey the gospel will be punished with eternal separation from the Lord (II Thessalonians 1:7-10). Paul admonished Titus after this manner, "This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men" (Titus 3:8). Hebrews chapter eleven shows how great men of the Old Testament demonstrated their faith. By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain (vs. 4). By faith Noah prepared the ark (vs. 7). By faith Abraham left the land of Ur (vs. 8). The list goes on and on. These peoples' faith was evidenced by their actions; i.e. their obedience to God. The verification of one's faith will be witnessed by their actions.
James 2:14-26 sets forth the best explanation concerning the relationship between faith and works.
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. 18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise also was not the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (emphasis mine)
James pointed out that if a person has genuine salvific faith, good-works will naturally follow showing evidence of that faith. Abraham really did believe God, and his works showed it.. If Abraham would have refused to offer Isaac upon the altar, it would have demonstrated a lack of faith in God's promises to him.
Some believe there is a contradiction between what Paul taught about justification by faith and what James taught concerning the same. There is no contradiction. Paul emphatically showed that a man is justified by faith alone, not by his own works. James emphatically showed that a man is justified by his faith, along with his works. The key to understanding how to reconcile these two passages is to understand how James and Paul use the terms "justified, faith, and works."
Faith = genuine faith and reliance upon God for salvation. Faith = mental assent that could fail to affect oneís actions. Works = works apart from faith that one believes are able to, or help save him. Works = works that can only be done through faith, which attest to genuine faith. Justified = declared righteous by God because of your trust in Him for salvation. Justified = shown to be righteous as evidenced by your actions.
Paul emphasized that we are saved by faith in Jesus, and not by our good works. James emphasized that the kind of faith that results in salvation will necessarily produce works that show evidence of that faith. Paul was concerned about people adding anything to faith that attempts to merit salvation.. James was concerned about people making claims of faith, but not possessing genuine faith at all, being only a dead mental-assent.
Justification is threefold in that the Bible speaks of it as already having taken place, as though it is taking place presently, and the future aspect of it being imputed to us when we get to heaven. Thus it is spoken of as being a past event, present reality, and future hope. Our justification happened historically when we initially trusted in Christ's atonement for our sins and applied it to our lives (I Corinthians 6:11), and it continues with us in the present, atoning for our current sins (Romans 3:26). This justification is not forfeited when we sin. All that we need to do is maintain a right relationship to God through repentance. It is in this way that we continue to show our faith in God, the faith that justifies. Repentance shows evidence of our faith in God's ability and purpose to forgive us (I John 1:9). When we repent, God forgives us of our sin, casting it into the sea of forgetfulness. Concerning the future aspect of justification, there will come a day when we will actually be made righteous in our very nature. This will occur when we receive our glorified body (Romans 5:19; Galatians 5:5). These three aspects of justification provide for the whole spectrum of our lives. We need not worry about our standing with God. We are the righteousness of God in Christ.
What was so startling to Jews about the NT concept of justification is that it does not limit justification to the future, but speaks of it as a past and present reality. The Jews, understanding the eschatological aspect of justification to it to such an extent that they believed that one is not justified in this life, but only in the life to come. If one's good deeds outweighed their bad deeds at the end of their life, God would pronounce them just. What God does with us, then, is pronounce us as just in this life before the judgment. He imputes to us presently the status that we will enjoy eschatologically, as though it were already a reality. We are enjoying in this life that the status which God has ordained for us in the next..
In Romans 4:1-5 Paul used the example of Abraham, demonstrating how he was justified by his faith in God apart from works. Verses 4-5 declare, "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." Notice what Paul just said. If we believe our works can help us receive salvation from God, then salvation is no longer the free gift of God, but is God's obligation to repay us for our help! If we do not work, however, God can freely give us His grace for our salvation.
The Jews stumbled at Jesus' cross. They refused to believe in the atonement He provided for them through His death at Calvary. The Jews could not attain to a right standing with God because they went about it the wrong way. They tried obtaining righteousness by their works. They thought that if they obeyed the Law of Moses perfectly, they would be saved. Their thinking was distorted. They had good-works, but they were not the result of faith in God. Their works were in spite of their lack of faith (Romans 9:30-33)..
Again in Romans 10:1-4, Paul speaks of a lack of faith on Israel's part. They did have a zeal for God. They wanted to be holy before Him, but their understanding of the relationship between faith and works was misconstrued. They were ignorant of the righteousness that God gives by faith, thus went about trying to establish their own righteousness. This righteousness was based upon strict law-keeping. In doing so, they failed to submit to the righteousness of God. They were very moral (we might call them ultra-conservative), but were not saved because their faith was misdirected, being placed in their own works instead of Jesus' work on their behalf at Calvary.
At this juncture it may be wondered at what point does one become justified? Abraham was justified apart from works. God counted him as righteous when he placed his faith in God's word. If faith was all that was necessary for Abraham, should we believe that God will only justify us after we have done such and such? The NT leads us to believe that our justification also occurs at the point of faith, not at some point later in time (Acts 13:39; Romans 3:26, 30; 4:1; 5:1; Galatians 2:16; 3:8, 24).
To answer this question, we must understand that justification is not the totality of our salvation experience. The other aspects include adoption, sanctification, and regeneration. I want to focus in on the latter. Regeneration is the transformation of believers wherein God infuses spiritual life into our spirits. Paul explained it as being made new creatures-old things passed away and all things become new (II Corinthians 5:17). Regeneration occurs through the new birth (Titus 3:5). When we are born again through baptism and the infilling of the Holy Spirit, we become regenerated. God gives us a new heart and new spirit (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27). Baptism is an essential part of this new birth because in baptism, believers die to the ruling power of sin, as the sinful body is destroyed, because we are being identified with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11, 14, 17-18, 20). There is a spiritual transformation taking place. God's Spirit in us gives us spiritual life (Romans 8:11; Ephesians 2:1-5). We receive a new nature that is holy, but we still retain our carnal nature. Likewise, when we are filled with God's Spirit, we become one with him (I Corinthians 6:17).
When we place our faith in God, He declares us to be in a right standing with Him, opening up the door of fellowship between He and ourselves once again. Justification, however, is only a reckoning of God's righteousness to us. We still need to have our nature be transformed through regeneration. When I say that our nature is transformed, I do not mean that our sin nature is eradicated, but that our spirit is changed. Whereas once it was dead, it is now alive. It is an impartation of new spiritual life. The new birth changes our spirit by giving us of God's holy nature, but we still retain our sin nature. Justification changes our status with God. It might be said then, that we are declared to be right when we are justified, and made to be right in our spirit when we are born again. Justification precedes regeneration, but must be followed by regeneration. It is not enough to be pronounced right with God, but we must also be transformed by Him through regeneration.
Although justification occurs at the point of one's faith in Jesus' atonement for their sins, we do not limit justification only to that point. Paul said, "And such were some of you: but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (I Cor 6:11). This appears to be a rather clear reference to baptism in Jesus' name and the infilling of the Holy Spirit. It this is so, then we have a clear association of the new birth with justification. How would we explain the manner in which justification can be spoken of as occurring at the point of faith, and also occurring in the new birth? Part of the answer to this dilemma lies in the book of James.
James, trying to demonstrate that saving faith will have corresponding works, argued that Abraham was justified when he demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice Isaac on the alter (James 2:20-21). Abraham did this through the same faith that He had placed in God's word some 35 years before, when God promised Abraham that he would have as many children as there were stars in the sky. This faith, apart from any works, was credited to Abraham's account as righteousness (Genesis 15:1-6). The offering of Isaac is said to have perfected (completed) the faith that Abraham had put in God years before (James 2:22). What Abraham had once believed without any accompanying works, he still believed, but now the genuineness of his faith was witnessed by his works. According to James, the Scripture "was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness:' " (James 2:23). God had given Abraham a right-standing with Him when He initially believed, but this pronouncement by God is said to have been fulfilled when Abraham was about to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. This does not mean that Abraham was not truly justified when he initially believed, but that he was shown to be justified when he exercised his faith in God's word. Just as Abraham's justification was completed when he initially trusted in God's Word, 25 years before the birth of Isaac, and yet he can still be spoken of as being justified by the exercise of that same faith in the offering up of Isaac, so too, we cannot separate the appropriation of our faith in repentance, baptism, and the receiving of the Holy Ghost, from justification either. Justification is not a process beginning at one point in time, and being completed in another. It is an instantaneous pronouncement of right-standing with God which is completed at faith, but there is an ongoing aspect (present) of justification also. We would not say that justification initially occurs or is completed "through the new birth," but we can and should say that, according to I Corinthians 6:11, we cannot divorce justification from the new birth. Our initial faith in Christ is shown to be valid when we obey the gospel (Romans 1:5; 10:16; 16:26) and the form of doctrine delivered to us (Romans 6:17), and as such, we can be said to be justified even as Abraham was justified in the offering of Isaac. Just as Abraham was justified in the exercising of his faith he offered up Isaac, likewise we are justified when we, by faith, are obedient to the gospel, and are born again (James 2:20-24).
Paul said, "To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (II Corinthians 5:19-21). God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to Himself. When He did this, He did not impute their sins to them. If Jesus would not impute our sins to us when we first came to Him, why would He impute our sins to us now? Some reason, "Because I knew what I was doing was wrong." Join the club! As humans we do mess up. The question is did you repent? When you sincerely repent and turn from the wicked way, God forgives you and you remain justified in His sight. You remain justified because of your faith in God that He will forgive you upon repentance.
Verse nineteen is the key to understanding the passage quoted above.. Jesus was righteous in every way. He never committed sin. He, as the sinless Son of God died the death of a sinner, shedding His sinless blood for the atonement of the sin of the world. When we believe on Jesus and His work at Calvary, we receive His righteousness. It is like a transfer. He took upon Himself our sin, and when we believe, and accept what He did for us, we take upon ourselves His righteousness. When we believe on Jesus Christ and obey =he gospel, we become as righteous as Jesus Christ Himself. Our relationship before God is the same as Jesusí relationship with Him. God views us in the same way that He views Jesus Christ.
So why do people feel condemned when they sin? It is because they are looking to their own works and not Jesus' work at Calvary. They are looking to themselves for justification instead of Jesus. It is no wonder why some people feel so bad. It is no wonder why some people's Christian walk consists of such great highs and great lows. If we keep our eyes focused on Calvary we will have victory. If we put our faith in Jesus we will be justified before God.
I have heard it said that one is saved by grace, but kept by works. This is terribly wrong. If we can only be saved by grace through faith, and not by our works, we cannot be lost by our works either (Ephesians 2:8-10). This does not mean that it is impossible to be lost. The Scripture abounds with such warnings. I am not speaking of those who intentionally sin against God and will not repent, acknowledging their sin and God's righteousness. I am speaking of those who genuinely have their faith in Jesus, but still struggle with sin. When they repent of their sin it is wiped from their account in the annals of heaven. They will not be lost because of their works, or lack thereof. The notion that we can be kept by our works dispels grace. We are no longer being saved by God's grace, but by our own works. This is an attempt to keep ourselves saved. The grace that saved us at conversion is the same grace that will keep us saved until that day when we finally receive our inheritance (I Peter 1:5). Thank God for His wonderful grace!
1. Jerry Bridges. The Discipline of Grace (NavPress Publishing Group: Colorado Springs, CO. 1994), 18. <back>
2. The Greek verb "to justify" is built upon the same root word as the Greek noun for "righteous." <back>
3. When Adam and Eve were created, they were created perfect, without the sin nature. They had perfect communion with God. They were able to walk with God and talk with Him (Genesis 3:8). This perfect communion between God and man existed until sin entered into the world through Adam and Eve's disobedience to God's commandment to not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When sin entered, the separation between God and men began (Isaiah 59:2). Jesus' death on the cross provided the means by which we could be restored to God. On the cross, Jesus destroyed the works of the devil which included sin (I Peter 3:8). When we accept what Jesus did for us at Calvary and thus obey the gospel, we receive Christ's righteousness (II Corinthians 5:21). When we are justified by our faith in Jesus' blood, the communication between us and God is restored. Now we are able to come boldly before the throne of grace and have full assurance to be able to draw nigh to Him (Hebrews 4:16; 10:19-22). We now have a relationship with Him, the relationship that Adam had before he fell by sinning against God. Hebrews 10:19 said that now we can enter boldly into the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus. We don't literally enter into a physical room like the Jewish high priest did, but it is speaking of that place of relationship with God. For it was in the Holy of Holies that the presence of God dwelt with the nation of Israel. <back>
4. Daniel L. Segraves, Romans (n.p.: Stockton, 1994), 50. <back>
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