Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

justification (Main)

Sola fide - justification by faith alone

The forensic character of justification

The Reformers recovered a biblical insight that had become heavily obscured in the Church: justification is a forensic act. “Forensic” means that it is a judicial declaration; it has to do with right “legal” standing with God. Over the course of the years, in part misled by the word Jerome had chosen to translate the respective terms from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, the Western Church came to construe justification primarily as having to do with ethical change.

Scripture, however, repeatedly contrasts justification with condemnation rather than with (say) corruption. “To justify” someone does not mean to renovate him morally; it means to pronounce a verdict of righteous.

Faith the only instrument

How then do we arrive at that “righteous” verdict? Justification is sola fide - by faith alone. Good works are not the ground, nor the instrument, of receiving a right standing in God’s courtroom. “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4.5 ESV).

To put it another way: a righteous verdict cannot be earned by human beings, or appropriated through the value of human works. To the contrary, Christ’s blood was shed as a spotless lamb on our behalf, precisely because we are, in and of ourselves, unacceptable sacrifices - meaning, ourselves and our works are not fit to be accepted by God.

Consequently, what God seeks is faith which leans upon Christ, and therefore the promises which God confers through Him. Our right standing with God is given through union with Christ, and union with Christ is by faith alone.

Faith alone, not an alone faith

More, however, needs to be said. Saving faith is a faith that perseveres, and is also a faith that works.

This observation does not imply that justification is on the basis of works - at least, not our works . Justification is on the basis of Christ's work, and received through faith. Justification is in union with Christ - the believer shares Christ's righteous standing before the Father. But union with Christ is no dead thing. The one united to Christ in justification is necessarily united to Him in His saving power over sin. Calvin stressed that union with Christ confers a twofold benefit, and that justification does not come apart from sanctification, although the two must be distinguished. In the words of Hebrews 12.14, no man will see the Lord without holiness.

The bibliography and quotations below cover the general subject of justification by faith, including the various matters dealt with above. Further material on related issues may be found on our other pages dealing with justification.

Bibliography

Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Tim Gallant: “Affirmations on Justification and Covenant-Keeping: An Outline.” A concise attempt to do justice to the biblical and Reformed statements relating faith, works, justification, and the covenant.

Tim Gallant: “Delivered to Do Good Works: A Sermon on Lord’s Day 32 / Galatians 5.13-26.” A sermon on the Heidelberg Catechism, arguing biblically for the Reformed view that good works are the goal of deliverance and ultimate salvation will not be had without them.

Tim Gallant: These Are Two Covenants: Reconsidering Paul on the Mosaic Law. A small book offering a global treatment of Paul's handling of the law.

Mark Horne:  “Justification and Salvation (Theologia Quiz).” A primer on the Westminster Standards’ view of justification and salvation, in the form of a provocative quiz.

Mark Horne:  “Pictet on Justification.” Horne provides a brief excerpt from Benedict Pictet’s Christian Theology, arguing that good works are necessary as demonstrative of faith and of justification.

Norman Shepherd: “The Grace of Justification.” Argues that turning to Christ in faith is itself an abandonment of one’s own ways.

Norman Shepherd: “Thirty-Four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works.” Shepherd’s work has been controversial; study his original formulation for yourself to see whether the controversy is deserved.

Zacharias Ursinus: “Are Good Works Necessary to Salvation?” Excerpted from his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Quotations

Since it is clear that Christ is the perpetual object of faith, we cannot know what we receive through faith except by looking to Him.... Christ, therefore, makes us thus participants in Himself in order that we, who are in ourselves sinners, may be, through Christ’s righteousness, considered just before the throne of God. And in this manner being stripped of our own righteousness, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ; and, being unjust by our own needs, we are justified through the faith of Christ.

John Calvin, Instruction in Faith 1537 (ch. 16)

We cannot receive through faith [Christ’s] righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification, because the Lord in one same alliance, which He has made with us in Christ, promises that He will be propitious toward our iniquities and will write His Law in our hearts.... It is not easy from this to understand why repentance is always joined with the faith of Christ....

- John Calvin, Instruction in Faith 1537 (ch. 17-18)

Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.

- Westminster Confession of Faith 15.3

But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?

Because the righteousness which can stand before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly conformable to the divine law, while even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

- Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 62

But does not this doctrine make men careless and profance?

By no means; for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

- Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 64

Can they, then, not be saved who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, do not turn to God?

By no means; for the Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

- Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 87

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied. . . .

- Belgic Confession, Art 23