THE PRECIOUS DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
When Martin Luther read Romans 1:16-18, he was initially depressed – in verse 18, he read that ‘the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness of men’.
Suddenly, a light dawned on him: The righteousness Paul had in mind was not God’s punitive justice which leads him to punish sinner, but rather a righteousness which God gives to the needy sinner, and which that sinner accepts by faith. This was a spotless and perfect righteousness, earned by Christ, which God graciously bestows on all who believe. At that moment, the Protestant Reformation was born.
Implied is the thought that if the church is right on this doctrine it will be basically right on all other teachings, but if it is wrong on this doctrine it will be basically wrong on every other teaching as well.. Calvin says that the doctrine of justification is “the main hinge on which religion turnes,”and John Murray affirms that there is no more important or ultimate question than the one that is answered by the doctrine of justification. J.I. Packer sums up the significance of justification in a comprehensive way:
‘As understood by the Reformers and their followers, and by Paul as I read lhim, this theme (justification) ils theological, declaring a work of amazing grace; anthropological, demonstrating that we cannot save ourselves; Christological, resting on incarnation and atonement, pneumatological, rooting in Spirit-wrought faith-union with Jesus; ecclesiological,determining both the definition and health of the church; eschatological, proclaiming God’s truly final verdict on believers here and now; evangelistic, inviting troubled souls into everlasting peace; pastoral, making our identity as forgiven sinners basic in our fellowship; and liturgical, being decisive for interpreting the sacraments and shaping sacramental services. No other biblical doctrine holds together so much that is precious and enlivening’.
A person with a shallow sense of sin and of the wrath of God against our sin will neither feel the need for nor understand the biblical doctrine of justification.
Hence the need of believers to understand this doctrine and to defend it vigorously.
JUSTIFIED BY FAITH IN CHRIST ALONE AND NOT BY WORKS
We have considered ‘Justification’: we noted that justification is by faith in Christ alone and not by works. We cannot be saved by our works, by ourselves, or even by keeping the commandments and the law of God. Many false teachings ‘blur’ this truth by ‘throwing in’ some forms of work or self-effort into the subject of justification and salvation.
However, there is another aspect of blurring – if justification is by faith, some present ‘faith’ in such a manner that ‘faith’ becomes our ‘work’, and this becomes a distortion of the meaning of biblical faith.
“..yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).
Biblically, and in the understanding of the Reformers, faith is a conscious acknowledgement of our own unrighteousness and ungodliness, and on that basis a looking to Christ as our righteousness, a clasping of Him as the ring clasps the jewel, a receiving of Him as an empty vessel receives treasure, and a reverent, resolute reliance on the biblical promise of life through Him for all who believe. Faith is our act, but not our work; it is an instrument of reception, without being a means of merit; it is the work in us of the Holy Spirit, who both evokes it and through it ingrafts us into Christ in such a sense that we know at once the personal relationship of sinner to Saviour and disciple to Master,and with that the dynamic relationship of resurrection life, communicated through the Spirit’s indwelling. So faith takes, and rejoices, and hopes and loves, and triumphs.
Understanding ‘faith’ biblically ‘sees’ it not as ‘work’ but as a ‘gift’ from God, focused on Christ as the ‘object’, and the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, who regenerates us and effects ‘UNION’ with Christ. Indeed, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).