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The Christian Understanding of Justification

This is the eighth of an ongoing series of articles exploring Calvary Grace’s Congregational Confession of Faith.

VIII. Justification

We believe that God freely justifies the ungodly by faith alone apart from works, pardoning their sins, and reckoning them as righteous and acceptable in His presence. We believe that faith is thus the sole instrument by which we, as sinners, are united to Christ, whose perfect righteousness and satisfaction for sins is alone the ground of our acceptance with God. We believe that the righteousness by which we come into right standing with God is accomplished for us, outside ourselves, and is imputed to us.

We believe, nevertheless, that the faith, which alone receives the gift of justification, does not remain alone in the person so justified, but produces, by the Holy Spirit, the fruit of love and leads necessarily to sanctification. We believe that faith that does not yield the fruit of good works is dead, being no true faith.

Martin Luther, the man who was used by God to spark the Protestant Reformation, has been quoted as saying justificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae: “justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.” While there is debate about whether the exact phrase was uttered by Luther or merely summarized from his teaching by someone after him, there should not be debate about the essential truth of the statement. Justification, or the biblical doctrine of how sinners are considered righteous before a holy God, lies at the heart of the Christian gospel, just as this article lies at the heart of our Congregational Confession of Faith in its eighth article.

Luther, and many after him, fought valiantly against the Catholic Church for the truths summarized in the paragraph above: that sinners are only justified by God by faith alone, “apart from works.” Instead of the grinding, arduous process of sacraments and prescribed works and prayers and self-abuse and other merit-earning deeds that the Catholic Church tells its followers to do in order to be “good enough” for heaven, Protestants like ourselves argue that it is Jesus’ work, not our own, that satisfies the Father, and that we enjoy the benefits of that work by being joined to Christ by faith.

On account of Jesus’ work, his “perfect righteousness” (as Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life) and his “satisfaction for sins” (being sacrificed on the cross as an offering, dying in our place for our sins) “is alone the ground of our acceptance by God.” That is, the reason—and the only reason, lest we think we need to add or mix our own good works into what Jesus did—God accepts us is because Jesus was good enough. If it were a courtroom, Jesus’ accomplishments are the legal grounds by which we are declared innocent, like a friend paying in full the fine you owe for an infraction. This “righteousness” or perfection and holiness on account of which God declares us acceptable to him is, therefore, an alien righteousness—a righteousness “accomplished for us,” not by us, “outside ourselves,” not within ourselves. Since it is not our own righteousness, but Christ’s, it is “imputed to us,” which means that it is “counted on our behalf” or legally considered to be ours even though it is Christ’s.

Justification, then, is not a change inside of ourselves. Rather, it is a change in our status before God. It is a judicial declaration, not an internal renovation. (That change inside, that renovation, is a distinct process called "sanctification" and is completed in "glorification," when we are made finally perfect in the resurrection). Moreover, it is a one-time declaration. Once and for all.

Faith, then, is “the sole instrument” by which we are joined to Christ. What does that mean? It means faith is the “means” by which we are saved, not the “basis” or “reason.” Having faith is not a “deed” or “work” that “earns” our salvation; rather, it’s the means by which we cling to the One who did earn it. Remember, as we mentioned before, even our saving faith is a gift given to us by God! So we can’t take any credit for it, or think that it earns us any credit. Think of a rescue helicopter plucking a stranded sailor out of the sea; the rope tied to the victim is not what saves him, but rather joins him to the helicopter which, with its crew, actually does the saving deed.

The objection then commonly arises: if faith alone is all that is needed for one to be saved, what is the place for good deeds? Could not someone profess faith in Jesus and continue to sin freely? Absolutely not. The article specifically talks about, in the second paragraph, “the faith” by which we are justified—that is, it is a specific and particular kind of faith, not merely “faith in general.” This specific faith can be identified, or distinguished from others, because it “produces, by the Holy Spirit, the fruit of love and leads necessarily to sanctification.” Put another way, there is a “kind” of faith that may believe particular facts about Jesus, but does not result in holiness or love or good deeds. In the words of the Apostle James: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14). James denied the idea that merely believing correct things about God can save when he pointed out, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (2:19) Rather, James argues for a particular kind of faith, a living and working faith, as being the only faith that saves, and that any other faith, any “faith by itself, if it does not have works,” is actually “dead.” (2:16)

So a works-producing, Spirit-given faith is the only kind of faith that can be used as the instrument of justification. Now, it doesn't mean we're perfect yet just because we have been given this faith. But it does mean the process has started and that we will see its fruit in our lives. This faith alone, apart from any works, unites us to Christ, whose righteousness alone is the sole reason we are declared acceptable. But that faith, by its very nature, will not remain alone; it cannot. The Holy Spirit works in the heart of every believer to worship God through service and good works, and to conform that sinner more and more to the pattern of Christ.