Dressed in His Righteousness Alone: What Is Justification by Faith?

October 18, 2021

by David E. Briones

I’ll never forget meeting up with a mentor of mine at Starbucks shortly after becoming a Christian. We regularly met there to read and study the Bible. One day, a person walked by and was elated to find Christians. But during our conversation, my mentor began asking some pretty forthright questions, and I couldn’t quite understand why.

“Do you believe that a person is justified by faith alone?” he said. The stranger hesitantly responded, “No, I believe that a person is justified by faith and works.” My mentor graciously but strongly insisted, “Then you don’t have a biblical view of justification.” A lot of back-and-forths followed, but because I was a recent convert, I found it immensely difficult to understand what was going on. I barely understood what the term justification meant!

Eventually, I discovered the importance of this vital doctrine. Martin Luther and other Reformers considered the doctrine of justification by faith alone the article on which the church stands or falls. It is at the core of the gospel, and the church needs to embrace it as such.

What Is Justification?

So then, what is justification? This is a crucial starting point. How one defines justification will determine not only how one thinks and believes but also how one lives.

Roman Catholic dogma, for example, defines justification as synonymous with sanctification,1 and the result is detrimental. One’s standing on the final day is determined by the growth of Christ’s righteousness, which is imparted to a person through baptism and increases through participation in the sacraments.2 In a word, justification is essentially a clean slate that one needs to maintain to enjoy a favorable verdict at the final judgment.

Diametrically opposed stands the Reformed understanding of justification, which is carefully, succinctly, and biblically defined in the answer to question 33 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.3

Notice that justification is an act, not a work or process.4 It is not a hopeful destination. It is God’s gracious, once-for-all verdict — his declaration of a person to be righteous in Christ, and therefore fully accepted by God.

The Greek words for justification and righteousness, along with their cognates,5 belong to the legal sphere.6 Consider, for example, Romans 8:31–34:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies [Greek ho dikaiōn]. Who is to condemn?

Justification language belongs to the courtroom; it is forensic. Accusations are met with God’s justifying verdict spoken over his elect (see also Romans 5:16–19) — a spoken word that melts the hardened hearts of sinners.

Whose Righteousness?

God, the holy, just, and perfect Judge, finds sinners not guilty and declares them righteous. How? On the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ — by forgiving our sins on account of the substitutionary death of Christ in our place (Romans 3:21–26) and imputing or reckoning Christ’s righteousness to us (Romans 4:1–9; Philippians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

What is this righteousness? His perfect obedience to God, rendered in his life and death, often referred to as the active and passive obedience of Christ. He perfectly fulfilled the law (Galatians 4:4–5; Romans 8:1–4) and also died under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), in love for his people (Galatians 2:20).

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A Far Greater Imagination

October 15, 2021

by David E. Briones