and the Doctrine of Justification
is Part 2 of a series that explores the ECT - Evangelicals and
Catholics Together – and its basic tenets. Click here
to read Part 1 on the "Origins of Evangelicals and Catholics
We are returning
to the series of articles that we began several months ago regarding
Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The second statement
issued by the joint committee was entitled The Gift of Salvation
and dealt with the doctrine of justification. Because of the importance
of this doctrine, we have dedicated this article to an in-depth
analysis of justification and its importance. The reader must have
a clear biblical understanding of justification before any attempt
can be made to analyze the statements made in The Gift of Salvation.
we begin, it must be stressed that an understanding of justification
is critical for the Christian. We live in times when the importance
of doctrine is not stressed as strongly as it should be. Although
there will be the use of some technical language, we will attempt
to make this article as lucid as possible.
FEW DEFINITIONS TO KEEP IN MIND AS YOU READ:
Cause of Salvation - God's compassion and love
for lost sinners
Cause of Salvation - Christ's substitutionary atonement
on the cross
Cause of Salvation - imputation of Christ's righteousness
to the sinner and the imputation of the sinner's guilt to
Cause of Salvation - faith alone in Christ alone
doctrine of justification by faith was the primary doctrine recovered
at the Reformation. Through his struggles to find acceptance with
God, Luther's understanding was opened to see that the righteousness,
or justice, that God's holiness required was not an impossible standard
to which God held sinful man. Rather, the righteousness of God was
a free gift in Christ and received by faith alone. When Luther came
to understand this doctrine, he thought he had entered the gates
of paradise. What did Luther come to understand by this experience
and what do we need to know about the doctrine?
understand two critical truths. First, God is just or righteous.
The standard that He demands is based on His character and cannot
be lowered. Second, we must realize we are sinners who are incapable
of measuring up to God's standard of righteousness. Although Luther
was a monk and did everything that he could to win acceptance with
God through his own efforts, they were unavailing. Man can never
approach God on the basis of his own works or righteousness. See
understand that what God demanded (perfect righteousness), God provided.
How did God provide this? The perfect righteousness required by
God's character came through the Person and work of His Son Jesus
Christ. God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into the world
to save sinners. See 1 Timothy 1:15; John 3:17. The initiative in
salvation came from God Himself. God's compassion and love for lost
sinners is what is called the moving cause of salvation.
John 3:16, perhaps the best known verse in the Bible, states that
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever
believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
understand the work of Jesus Christ. What relationship is there
between Jesus Christ and the sinner? First, He took our nature (human
nature, yet without sin) into union with His divine nature. He became
the God-man. See Philippians 2:7. He submitted Himself under the
law of God and obeyed it perfectly. By His obedience, Jesus Christ
earned or merited eternal life. Jesus Christ was the only person
who has ever obeyed perfectly all the demands of God’s law.
In theological terms, this is called Christ's active obedience.
Jesus Christ was a righteous person. Although Jesus Christ was righteous
and merited eternal life, He died in the place of guilty sinners
by enduring the penalty of a broken law. The Scriptures state that
all have sinned and are come short of the glory of God. See Romans
3:23. The penalty of a broken law is death in all aspects: physical,
spiritual, and eternal. See Romans 6:23. In theological terms, this
is called Christ's passive obedience in paying the penalty
of a broken law.
understand that Christ's death on the cross for sinners was accomplished
in His role as their substitute. God ordained that Christ should
be the representative of His people. See Romans 5:12-21. As a result,
Christ did not act for Himself but as the substitute on behalf of
those He represented. In theological terms, this is called the meritorious
cause of salvation: the substitionary atonement of Christ for
understand how a person receives the benefits of Christ's work accomplished
for him on the cross, i. e how a person becomes a Christian. We
speak of the great exchange by which the righteousness of Christ
(both active and passive) is given to the sinner. This righteousness
of Christ is imputed to the sinner. Imputation is a legal
term that expresses how something is put to the credit or account
no compelling reason why Christ had to die. He had kept perfectly
the law of God and merited eternal life through His obedience. Voluntarily,
He took the place of guilty sinners on the cross and paid the penalty
of their sin. The perfect righteousness of Christ was imputed to
the person and the person's guilt was imputed to Christ. See 2 Corinthians
5:21. We are speaking in legal terms because righteousness and guilt
are legal conditions before God. Because they are legal conditions,
they can be imputed or put to the account of another. In theological
terms the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the sinner and
the imputation of the sinner's guilt to Christ is called the formal
cause of salvation. Therefore, we say that a person is justified
when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. See Romans 4:24.
understand the answer to this crucial question: how does the individual
receive this righteousness or how is it imputed to him? The Word
of God knows of only one way. It is imputed by faith alone. See
Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 3:26. Faith, in its essence, is a renunciation
of any human attempt to meet God's demands, but is trust and reliance
in Christ alone. Martin Luther knew that he could never reach the
standard that a righteous God demanded. No matter how hard he tried,
he came short. In theological terms, faith is called the instrumental
cause of salvation because faith is the means by which righteousness
is imputed to the person. The Bible is clear that salvation is earned
not by works of righteousness that we have done. See Titus 3:5.
Why is it impossible to be justified by works? It is impossible
because our righteousness is imperfect. It is incapable of meeting
the standard of perfect righteousness that God's character demands.
Any person who attempts to approach God on the basis of his own
works can never be justified. An approach to God on the basis of
works was closed when Adam and Eve sinned against God. See the biblical
account in Genesis 3.
also understand that faith is adequate to meet the sinner's need.
Why is this so? It is because faith trusts in the Person of Christ
alone. The righteousness of Christ is sufficient for any sinner.
He is a more than an adequate Savior; He is a mighty Savior. It
is necessary to appreciate the sufficiency of the righteousness
that is imputed to our account. In Christ, we have fulfilled perfectly
the requirements of God's Holy Law. In Christ, the demands of a
broken law (death) have been met. The failure to appreciate the
greatness of our justification often results in low views of Christ
and His power to save.
the result of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us? Before
God we are declared righteous. The righteousness of Christ gives
us the legal right to stand before God and to enter His presence.
The justification of the Christian is complete and perfect. Because
it is Christ's righteousness, there is no need for additional merit.
Negatively speaking we are declared not guilty and positively speaking
we are declared righteous. See Romans 4:6-8.
call the doctrine of justification by faith a legal fiction. However,
for the guilty person burdened with a sensitive conscience, it is
the most glorious thought imaginable. In Romans 5:1-11, Paul describes
the blessings that justification brings including peace with God,
proven character in affliction, and true hope.
convinced that the doctrine of justification by faith leads to an
ungodly life. They reason that if a person realizes their sins are
forgiven, they will have the license to live as they please. This
is not a new objection to the doctrine of justification because
Paul faced it in his own day. See Romans, chapter 6. If the grace
of God abounded toward us when we were yet sinners, why should not
we continue to live in sin so that grace might super abound? The
Biblical answer to this objection is that justification is not the
only blessing given to the person at the moment of salvation. Not
only has the person been declared righteous, he has been united
with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. He has been
translated out of the kingdom of unrighteousness into the kingdom
of righteousness. He has been brought into this liberty of a new
relationship with God through the new birth or regeneration. The
person who has experienced the grace of both justification and regeneration
has a new principle of life in his heart. He desires to do the will
of God from the heart because he shares the resurrected life of
Christ. This new life in Christ has two characteristics. First,
it is a life that has victory over sin, and second, it is a life
that is lived unto God. See Paul's description of this new life
in Christ as found in Romans 6:1-11.
Let us give
some practical lessons that come from a biblical understanding of
the doctrine of justification by faith.
Luther stated that the correct teaching of the doctrine of justification
by faith distinguishes between a standing or falling church. Where
the doctrine is taught correctly, the church is in a healthy state.
Where this doctrine is not taught or is misunderstood, the glorious
truth of the Gospel is hidden. The Reformers were convinced that
the Medieval Church did not teach the doctrine of justification
correctly and, as a result, many people were in grave spiritual
As a result,
the Reformers were adamant in their resistance to any attack on
this doctrine because it was an attack on the Gospel itself. They
coined Latin phrases that safeguarded the Gospel and the doctrine
of justification. They stressed that justification was by faith
alone (sola fide) and it was in Christ alone (solus
Christus). Having escaped the spiritual darkness that enveloped
the Church, they fought to protect this doctrine with all their
because the doctrine of justification lies at the heart of the Gospel
of grace, we should not be surprised if it is attacked. Many times
it is not a direct denial or attack on the doctrine itself as much
as it is neglected or not given the emphasis in the Christian faith
that it merits. Even in the 21st century, this doctrine is being
called into question. It is important that every Christian know
this doctrine so that he might be able to defend the faith once
for all delivered to the saints.
correct understanding of this precious doctrine leads to a stable
Christian life and experience. There are many people who lack a
biblically-based assurance of their salvation. An experiential knowledge
of this teaching leads to a sure ground of hope that we are truly
those who belong to our Lord Jesus Christ. May this be an incentive
to a further study of this precious biblical truth.
In our next
article, we will compare the doctrine of justification by faith
with what is contained in the Evangelical and Catholics Together
statement entitled The Gift of Salvation.