How can a Person be Justified before God?

When Martin Luther asked himself, “How is a person justified?”, the answer he discovered was, sola fide. Luther said that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the article upon which the church stands or falls. “This doctrine [of justification by faith] is the head, and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God, and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour . . . If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.”

Later in life, Luther would lament that the doctrine of justification by faith alone would be short lived. He was right for today, once again, the world is enamored with being saved by good works. The doctrine of sola fide touches the very heart and soul of the gospel itself.

John Calvin took a similar view. He said that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the hinge upon which everything else turned.

Dr. J. I. Packer likened the doctrine of justification by faith alone to the task of the mythological Greek god Atlas whose task it was to carry the weight of the world upon his shoulders. This doctrine holds up all other biblical doctrines.

Dr. R. C. Sproul believed that the doctrine of justification by faith is relatively easy to grasp with the mind, but difficult to have it control our hearts and lives.

It is not faith in the doctrine of justification that saves, but it is the content to which the doctrine points which is so essential.

The question the doctrine of justification seeks to answer is this: How can an unjust person be found righteous in the sight of God? How can a person survive the final judgment of a just and holy God? What does a person do with guilt?

The psalmist asked, “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Psa. 130:3).

The simple answer to the question of how a person is to be found righteous in the sight of God is given in Romans 1:17. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”

The Bible says that God is just, and the justifier of those who believe in His gracious provision for the forgiveness of sin, by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

Two concepts are united in this passage. First, God is just. Second, God is the justifier. The gospel does not say that God unilaterally declares forgiveness to everyone in the world. That is called universalism, and it is not a Biblical doctrine, however attractive the concept might be to the human heart.

The doctrine of justification includes the divine mercy that is extended to individuals, but it is only given to “him which believeth in Jesus.” God is a forgiving God. He is also a holy and just God. God does not look at sin through His fingers, for then He would not fully see the whole guilt of the sinner. Some sins would be obscured. God looks fully upon the person He is judging. He knows their every thought, and deed. He knows their heart. God does not wink at sin. God does not compromise His own character and justice. “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer. 17:10).

The Bible says that God is the justifier. However He works that out, He does not compromise justice, or His own character. It is God who does the justifying. That means that no person can justify themselves. Nor can others justify a person. Not even the Church can justify a person. Ultimately, it is God, and God alone, who is the justifier. Only God can pronounce the final verdict of any person’s justification, or lack of it.

Now, there is something else. The Reformers of the sixteenth century believed that justification was forensic. This is a term not commonly used in the church. It is often used in a criminal system. The term forensic has to do with an announcement, or pronouncement, in the area of law. In theological terms, in the final analysis, God justifies a person when He declares that a person is legally righteous in His sight. The position of the Catholic Church is that a person becomes righteous in the sight of God, and on that basis, they are justified.

The Reformers said, “No, a person can never become righteous in the sight of God, for every person is intrinsically unrighteous. Every person is sinful.” “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” (Rom. 3:23). “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

If any person is to be justified in the sight of God, then God must find a way to justify them in order to declare them righteous. Forensic justification is God’s declaration of a  person’s being just.

“How is this possible?” The answer is, that, in grace and mercy, God found a way to justify a sinner in His sight in a legal sense. God would impute the righteousness of Christ to the account of every person who believed in Jesus Christ. Luther called this process of justification, “Simul justis et peccator.” In other words, simultaneously just and yet a sinner.

Those who are justified are, both, just, and sinner. Luther is not being contradictory. He is not saying that a person is both just, and a sinner, at the same time, and in the same relationship. It is a different sense in which we are just, from the fact we are a sinner.

The good news of the gospel, the glory of the gospel, is that God pronounces people just, while they are still a sinner. God legally declares a person just in His sight, while, under analysis, they are still a sinner.

What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness (Rom. 4:1–5).

It is that declaring someone just, who, in themselves is not just, that creates so much controversy, especially with the Catholic Church.

The Reformers were accused of creating a legal fiction by saying that God justifies the guilty. “How can it be right to justify the ungodly?” The gospel calls upon God reckoning, or counting on people, to be something they are not. The gospel reaches back across the ages to the time of Abraham, when God made certain promises to the patriarch. The Bible says that Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness. “And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

In matchless grace, God counted to Abraham, a righteousness he did not have in himself. His faith did not atone for his sins. His faith did not make him righteous. Rather, the reason God counted Abraham righteous, the reason why God counts anyone righteous, is because of the work of Christ at Calvary, whereby Christ atoned for the sins of those who are to be the heirs of salvation. The phrase, “justification by faith alone,” is theological shorthand for “justification by Christ alone.”

The fundamental issue is this: On whose basis does God declare a person righteous? Does God declare a person righteous on the basis of their own merit? Does God declare a person righteous on the basis of the merit of Christ?

The Reformers argued that the only ground for justification is Christ. “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” (1 John 5:1).

I commend to you the principle of sola fide,or justification by faith alone.

1 Comment

  1. The phrase “doctrine of justification by faith alone was the article upon which the church stands or falls” did not come from Luther. It appears in the Introduction of “The dispute Concerning Justification”, copied and pasted below:

    Though Luther was not a theological systematizer in the manner of Melanchthon or Calvin, he recognized that all aspects of evangelical theology were related to the one article of faith by which the church stands or falls. That is why he [Luther] said in the preface to this disputation, “As you have often heard, most excellent brothers, because that one article concerning justification even by itself creates true theologians, therefore it is indispensable in the church and just as we must often recall it, so we must frequently work on it.”
    Introduction to the Dispute Concerning Justification
    English translation from Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, page 147

    While Scripture says no one is righteous (Romans 3:10, Psalms 53:2-3, 143:2) it also refers Noah, Daniel, Job (Ezekiel 14:14), Joseph (Matthew 1:19), Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:6), Abel (Hebrews 11:4) and even Lot (2 Peter 2:7) as righteous (Greek dikaios, Hebrew Tzadek) persons. The existence of righteous persons, without naming them is shown in Psalms 5:12, 34:15, Matthew 5:45, 1 Peter 3:12 and many other verses.

    Both in Hebrew and Greek the word “righteous” is related to the word “justice”. There is forensic aspect of justification. Proverbs 17:15 says: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord”. Contrary to what this verse says, the Reformers’ made God justify us who remains sinner, and, following Penal substitution of John Calvin, made God direct his wrath/anger to righteous Christ. Ezekiel 18:20 says “the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself”. This verse contradicts double imputation taught by the Reformers, i.e. righteousness of Christ is imputed on us and our sins are imputed on Him. Ezekiel 33:12 says “the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins”, which is against what Luther stated in “simul iustus et peccator” (justified and sinner at the same time).

    Scripture says that through Christ we are made righteous (Rom. 5:19). It nowhere says through Him we are counted as righteous based on (alien/external) righteousness of Christ imputed on us. Rom. 4:3 does say faith is counted as righteousness but it does not say Abraham was counted as righteous. Scripture also says in Mat. 25:46 that the righteous shall go to eternal life. This is the reason why Catholics believe that God through Christ makes us righteous, i.e. we do not become righteous by ourselves. After we are made righteous by God, then forensically we are declared righteous, also by God.

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