How Justification by Faith Alone Works: Remembering the Reformation as We Enter 2018

samuel-zeller-432101.jpg8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
— Ephesians 2:8–10 —

Few things are more important than getting the doctrine of justification right. Because we are made by God, for God’s glory, and yet find ourselves as objects of his wrath by our very nature, there is no more important question than this: “What must I do to be saved?” How one answers that question will do more to determine the course of a person’s life, not to mention eternity, than anything else.

Indeed, one’s standing before God is what the Protestant Reformation was all about. And though 2018 leaves behind the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Reformation’s recovery of the gospel is as important today as at any time in history. Mass confusion remains about how one is reconciled to God—both inside the church and out. And thus it remains wise and good to learn from the Reformers about justification by faith alone and to learn how justification by faith alone is the engine to a life of good, God-pleasing works.

The Basics of Justification by Faith

In Michael Reeves and Tim Chester’s excellent book Why the Reformation Still Matters, they tell how Martin Luther came to understand justification by faith alone. And they summarize his doctrine of justification in four points and one chart. They write (p. 32),

We may summarize Luther’s theology of justification this way:

  1. Justification is a forensic act by which a believer is declared righteous. Justification is not a process by which a person is made righteous. “Forensic” means legal— it invokes the image of a law court. It involves a change of status—not a change of nature.
  2. The cause of justification is the alien righteousness of Christ. It is not inherent within a person or in any sense said to belong to us. It is “imputed” or reckoned to us. It is not “imparted” or poured into us.
  3. Justification is by faith alone. We can contribute nothing. Christ has achieved everything for us already.
  4. Because justification is an act of God and because it is based on the finished work of Christ, we can have assurance. Justification is future in orientation: it is acquittal on the day of judgment. But justification is the assurance in the present that the final verdict will be in our favor.
Lutheran View of Justification Catholic View of Justification
A forensic act A healing act
The image of a law court The image of a hospital
Alien righteousness (of Christ) Inherent righteousness (within the believer)
Imputed Imparted
By faith alone Begun with faith and continued through sacraments and good works
Justified now on the basis of Christ’s finished work Justified now on the basis of what we will become
An assured future An uncertain future

Of course, there is much more to say about the biblical doctrine of justification, especially as it relates to the doctrines of union with Christ and adoption, but these basic tenets form a clear distinction between Protestant and Catholic doctrines. They also clarify what saving faith is to a church awash with a myriad false gospels of works righteousness and prosperity based on having greater faith.

For these reasons, we must continue to preach the gospel of justification by faith alone. It is not an historic belief system to be remembered in an historic year. It is the eternal gospel to saves sinners and sets captives free.

How Justifying Faith Works 

At the same time, it is important when sketching the basics of justification to avoid one error that often arises by misunderstanding the free nature of grace. This error is in believing that justification by faith denies any place for good works. That is to say, while it is right to stress faith alone, such saving faith is never alone. As Luther and the other Reformers plainly explained, the faith that justifies also sanctifies and leads to a life of good works.

In fact, when confusion arose in 2009 about the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Lutherans, Tony Lane, a Calvin scholar who has written a helpful Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, provided a helpful list of quotations on Calvin’s view of justification. Here are some of them related to the way faith alone is never alone.

Therefore Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify. (Institutes 3:16:1)

We explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. (Institutes 3:11:2)

Whomever, therefore, God receives into grace, on them he at the same time bestows the Spirit of adoption, by whose power he remakes them to his own image. (Institutes 3:11:6)

It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light. (Acts of the Council of Trent: with the Antidote, 6th Session, can. 11)

Whereas some want to accuse the Reformers of making justification by faith inimical to good works, a closer look tells us, just like the apostle Paul, justification by faith alone is always the source and strength of all good works (Ephesians 2:10). Why? Because any work done to earn God’s favor requires trust in ourselves, and this naturally denies absolute trust in God, which Scripture tells is necessary to please God (Hebrews 11:6; cf. Romans 14:23).

At the same time, only as God’s gift of justification frees us from proving ourselves to him, does it free us to love our neighbors and take up the cause of injustice. Indeed, rather than eliminating good works, justification by faith empowers them because it fills the believer with love and strength to do good for others, without constantly focusing on the self before God.

The Good Works That Only Justification by Faith Can Produce

In fact, few in the history of the English-speaking church demonstrate the power of justification by faith to bring about good works like that of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was, humanly speaking, the leading voice and politicians to end of slavery in England. And importantly, this lifelong dream of seeing slaves emancipated was fueled by the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

On this point, John Piper’s summary has been most helpful. Demonstrating the way Wilberforce’s doctrine led to good works, he writes,

This was why he wrote A Practical View of Christianity. The “bulk” of Christians in his day, he observed, were “nominal”—that is, they pursued morality without first relying utterly on the free gift of justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone. They got things backward: first they strived for moral uplift, then appealed to God for approval. That is not the Christian gospel. And it will not transform a nation. It would not sustain a politician through eleven Parliamentary defeats over twenty years of vitriolic opposition.

The battle for abolition was sustained by getting the gospel right: “The true Christian . . . knows . . . that this holiness is not to precede his reconciliation to God, and be its cause; but to follow it, and be its effect. That, in short, it is by faith in Christ only that he is to be justified in the sight of God.” When Wilberforce put things in this order, he found invincible strength and courage to stand for the justice of abolition.

Could such a sustained effort against slavery have emerged from a gospel of works? Wilberforce (and Calvin and Luther, and the Apostle Paul before them all) would say, “No!” Why? Because the man who must work to please God has no power to lay down his life for others. However, those who are freely received in God’s presence have incentive to pray; they have the Holy Spirit to work in them; and they have the love of God poured into their heart moving them to sacrifice for others.

In all these ways, we see how important justification by faith alone is. Indeed, it is the doctrine that sets men and women free from their sin. And liberated from sin, the Spirit of God empowers them to love others through a life of good works. As we head into 2018, let’s us not forget or neglect the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. It alone has the power to fill our lives with good works, just as God planned before the foundation of the earth, as Ephesians 2:8–10 wonderfully tells us.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

One thought on “How Justification by Faith Alone Works: Remembering the Reformation as We Enter 2018

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