The 500th anniversary of what is commonly held to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is nearly upon us! For it was on October 31st, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his now-famous “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s invitation to debate these 95 points of doctrine or contention has been called the spark that lit the flame of the Protestant Reformation.
With this momentous anniversary almost upon us, I thought it might be helpful to post something on the protestant doctrine of justification. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) is often called the “material cause” of the Reformation. In other words, it was front and center in many of the debates, discussions, and even trials. The “formal cause” of the Reformation – the underlying foundational issue – was the authority of Scripture (or sola Scriptura).
The doctrine of justification has been called the doctrine by which the church stands or falls (Martin Luther), and the hinge on which the Christian religion turns (John Calvin). So what is it? What is the biblical doctrine of justification?
I believe that the simplest and most helpful definition of justification is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where it says,
“Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
So the first thing we see there in that definition is that justification is “an act of God’s grace.” It is an act of the grace of God, and so it is a gift, freely given to all who are in Christ by faith. It is not earned, nor can it be. In other words, the basis of our justification is not found in anything inherent in us at all.
The second thing we see is that justification is a one-time act, as distinguished from sanctification, which is an ongoing “work of God’s free grace” (Q.35). There are no degrees of justification; there is no growth (or decay) in justification. In fact, as Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77 points out, justification “does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation” (italics added). All genuine believers in Christ are equally, perfectly, and irrevocably (!) justified in Christ and so freed from God’s wrath! That is grace!
The third thing that we see here in this definition of justification is that this act of God’s grace in Christ includes the pardon or forgiveness of all of our sins. What a wonderful blessing (Psalm 103:2-3)! No wonder the Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)
Forgiveness and peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ! Is there anything that sinners could possibly need more than that? No wonder the gospel of Christ is good news!
But wait, there’s more! The fourth thing that we see in the Shorter Catechism’s definition of justification is that in it God not only pardons all of our sins, but He also “accepts us as righteous in his sight.” Being forgiven is one thing, but then also being accepted by a holy God as if we were righteous in His sight! Justification is much more than a clean slate! It is having a positively righteous slate or standing in the eyes of a holy God!
How is that even possible? How can sinners be accepted by God as righteous in His sight? What is the basis or ground of this new standing before God? The Catechism adds that it is “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” When we come to Christ by faith, His perfect, spotless righteousness is reckoned or imputed to our account in God’s sight!
In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ did not just die in our place, but He lived in our place as well! This is often spoken of as the “active obedience” of Christ (in contrast to His “passive” obedience, wherein He suffered and died in our place). His obedience is reckoned as our obedience when it comes to our standing before God!
And how is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us and received by us? By faith alone. Period. Not by something we do; not by faith in Christ plus something else – faith alone. And it is by faith alone in order to ensure that it is by God’s grace alone (Romans 4:16).
What a wonderfully full and yet concise definition of justification! And what a beautiful and comforting truth! That is certainly something well worth considering, meditating upon, and celebrating.