October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It is instructive that when God began to move on a large-scale basis in the time of Martin Luther to restore Biblical truth, the foremost theme of the era of spiritual renewal was justification by faith. While much was rediscovered during the Protestant era, history surely declares that top priority with God is an understanding of the doctrine of justification.
Justification is defined as the acceptance with which God receives us into His favor as righteous men and women. In other words, justification involves right standing with God. What subject could be more vital?
Let’s look at the Scriptures from which the doctrine is derived:
- Acts 13:38-39 “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”
- Romans 3:24-25 “[You] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
- Romans 4:5-8 “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”
Now, faith itself does not possess the power of justifying. We are not justified because of faith nor on account of faith, but rather by means of faith. God alone justifies. Those whom He effectually calls unto salvation rest by faith upon Christ’s righteousness. This faith they have not of themselves, but as the gift of God. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
No discussion of justification is complete without a consideration of the place of good works in the matter. While James chapter two lets us know that good works are the necessary evidence of salvation, Scripture gives us an unclouded understanding that they have no function toward a faith-produced justification.
A careful reading of Paul’s illustration in Romans chapter four concerning Abraham so clearly makes the point: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” Grace, which is unmerited favor, and the erroneous teaching of salvation by works cannot mix. As John Calvin wrote, “Righteousness according to grace is owed to faith. Farewell, then, to the dream of those who think up a righteousness flowing together out of faith and works.”
How will a free gift agree with works? We must be wary of those who teach any other doctrine except that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17). Let us hear Calvin again: “If righteousness is revealed in the gospel, surely no mutilated or half righteousness, but a full and perfect righteousness is contained there.”
Blessed justification: remission of punishment, restoration to favor, the imputed righteousness of God and new legal standing before the Lord. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!
Look at the high marks in church history – the revivals in the times of Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, Edwards and Spurgeon in recent centuries – and you see a recognizable line, a common denominator. It is the open declaration of this grand old truth of justification by faith. If God truly comes upon our generation, we can expect with certainty a return to the same message.