3 May 2021
It was said that the formal cause of the Reformation was the issue of authority (sola Scriptura) and that the material cause was the issue of justification (sola fide – justification by faith alone).
Martin Luther asserted that sola fide is “the article with and by which the church stands, without which it falls… Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”
John Calvin likewise attached crucial importance to the doctrine of Justification: “The doctrine of Justification…is the principal ground on which religion must be supported, so it requires greater care and attention. For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgement is which He passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which piety (sanctification or holiness) towards God can be reared.”
Sola fide is important not merely because the church stands or falls on it. It is important because on it we stand or fall. The place where and the time when we will either stand or fall is at the judgement seat of God.
We have looked at “God is our Judge” previously; the doctrine of Justification has to do with our status before the just judgement of God. That every person will ultimately be called into account before God is central to the teaching of Jesus. He warns that the secret things of our lives will be made manifest before the Father and that every idle word we have spoken will be brought into judgement. The whole world – every man, woman, and child – will come before the final divine tribunal. We will come to that place, at that time, as either unjustified or justified sinners. The judgement will be a righteous judgement by a righteous God (Acts 17:30-31).
Paul wrote that no flesh will be justified in God’s sight by the deeds of the law. Justification on the ground of our works is eliminated (Rom. 3:9-10,19-20). Justification is through faith in Jesus Christ. This justification is not given to everyone; it is provided to all, and on all, who believe. It is based on the righteousness of God that is provided to and on the believer. It is given both freely and graciously by God through the redeeming work of Christ; this manner of justification demonstrates God Himself to be both just and the justifier (Rom. 3:21-26).
The sinner must appear before a divine Judge who is perfectly just. Yet the sinner is unjust. How can he possibly be unjust and justified? The answer to this question: for God to justify the sinner and Himself remains just in the process, the sinner must somehow become actually just by a righteousness supplied him by another. Sola fide declares that the ground of our justification is solely the righteousness of Christ. It is a righteousness apart from us and outside of us, not a part of us. Herein is the doctrine of imputation: God declares us righteous before we actually become actively righteous by imputing to us the righteousness of Christ.
God commands us to be holy; our moral obligation is to live perfect lives. One sin mars that obligation and leaves us exposed before divine justice. Once a person sins at all, a perfect record is impossible. Even if we could live perfectly after that one sin, we would still fail to achieve perfection. Our sin may be forgiven, but forgiveness does not undo the sin. The consequences of the sin may be removed, but the sin itself is not undone.The Bible speaks figuratively about the sin being washed, cleansed, healed and blotted out. These images describe an expiation for sin and divine forgiveness of our sin; our record does not change, but our guilt does. Hence Paul declares, “blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin” (Rom.4:8). In our redemptive forgiveness God does not charge us with what we owe. He does not count our sins against us. If He did, no one would ever escape His just wrath. No one but Christ would be able to stand before God’s judgement.
The Bible teaches that the declaration of justice follows the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the regenerated sinner. Sanctification follows and is based on justification. How can God ever deem a sinner just? Calvin identifies only two possible ways God can do this: that person is justified either by his own works, or by Christ’s works. God can declare a person just only if that person possesses righteousness. This person possesses righteousness by imputation: this person will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous. In other words, God receives him into His favour as if he were righteous and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.
Hence when God justifies us through the intercession of Christ, He does not acquit us on a proof of our own innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness, so that though not righteous in ourselves, we are deemed righteous in Christ.
The sinner who has saving faith is a regenerate person. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit effects real change in the person but the change wrought by regeneration does not effect immediate perfection. The regenerate person is now indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, he remains imperfectly just in himself. The regenerate person is also in a real process of sanctification by which he is becoming just. But he by no means reaches that point of perfect justness before God declared him perfectly just in Christ. Those who possess saving faith necessarily, inevitably, and immediately begin to manifest the fruits of faith, which are works of obedience. The ground of the person’s justification, however, remains solely and exclusively the imputed righteousness of Christ. It is by His righteousness and His righteousness alone that the sinner is declared to be just and is really just in Him.
The Lord willing, we shall look further into this subject. Understanding this is so vital in our outworking as believers and it is essential in the purity of the gospel.