Truth for Today

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The Doctrine of Justification

by Rev. David Blunt

A notable and sad feature of the so-called "ecumenical movement" of late has been the attempt to reinterpret the Protestant teaching on justification so that it is hardly distinguishable from that of Rome: thereby the greatest work of the Reformation is undone and the way is paved for reunion with the Papacy. Many evangelicals are falling for the bait.

It is vital therefore that Protestants have clear views on this doctrine which is so central to salvation and to the being and well-being of the church of Christ on earth. This brief article surveys the main points of significance regarding the doctrine of "justification by grace alone through faith alone."

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 16, October-December 1999.

T HE importance of this subject can hardly be overstated. Because of this doctrine the chief of sinners may yet be saved – and God Himself will have all the glory through Jesus Christ for it. "We are justified by God's free gift, and not of ourselves; but the righteousness of Christ is accounted to be our righteousness, and through the same we obtain everlasting life" (Bishop Latimer).

Despite recent more friendly approaches by Rome, modifying her language and using Scripture in an attempt to buttress her false view of justification, it is a fact that the teaching of the Council of Trent, adopted in 1547, has never been repealed: "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man." This Decree was drawn up to counter Protestant teaching. Among other things it makes justification a process, not an act. What is the true view?

1. Character of Justification

At the outset we must determine the meaning of the word 'justification'. The Mediaeval Church understood "to justify" as "to make righteous" and in this it was following the Latin Vulgate in its use of the verb justificare. The Reformers though insisted that justification was a legal term, implying a change of status, not of nature. In Scripture the act of justifying is opposite to that of condemning (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Rom. 8:33, 34). Since to condemn a person is not to make him guilty but simply to declare or pronounce him such, therefore to justify is to reckon righteous. It is an act rather than a work. The Shorter Catechism asks, "What is justification? " and answers: " Justification is an act of God's free grace... " (Q.33). In justification God acts as a judge, employing power in the sense of authority, not force. The sinner is tried before the tribunal of the triune God and is found to be righteous in terms of His holy law. It is a sentence complete at once and not a work like sanctification which is carried on by degrees and only perfected at death.

2. Content of Justification

John Brown of Wamphray wrote of justification as: "That change of state before God, which such are made partakers of as lay hold of Christ by faith, through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, whereby they are brought into an estate of favour and reconciliation with God, who were before under his wrath and curse; and upon which they have all their iniquities, whereof they are guilty, actually pardoned; are accepted of as righteous, and pronounced such through the Surety-Righteousness of Christ imputed to them; and freed from the sentence and curse of the Law, under which they were lying."

The act of justification may be divided into two parts (see SC Q.33):

a) pardon. This is to be absolved from our guilt. It extends to all the sins of those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a complete forgiveness of past sins and all future sins will not be imputed to us;

b) acceptance. This is to be received into God's favour. Men may forgive those who have wronged them without giving them further favours, but the believer is so accepted in the Beloved that he is also brought into intimate friendship with God.

Adoption is a distinct gracious act which logically comes after the sentence of condemnation is revoked: "The privilege of adoption presupposes pardon and acceptance, but it is higher than either" (James Buchanan).

3. Cause of Justification

What is the ground upon which a holy God justifies sinners? Chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession of Faith deals with common misconceptions in its opening section:

a) justification does not depend on anything done in us: " not for any thing wrought in them." We are not justified because of the grace that is in us, although any evidences of the Spirit's work will encourage us in believing that we are justified;

b) justification does not depend on anything done by us: " or done by them." Under the law as a covenant of works God demands "personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience" (WCF 19:1). Even supposing we could produce a suitable obedience it could not atone for our guilty past. Moreover, "in many things we offend all" (Jam. 3:2) and "come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). The truth is that even our "righteousnesses" are all as "filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6);

c) justification does not depend on our gospel obedience: " not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience." Arminians historically have held to the idea that a man's believing is accepted as his righteousness before God. This is to leave him naked. Faith and righteousness cannot be the same thing for righteousness is "by faith" (Rom. 3:22). This view is a denial of Christ's surety-righteousness and a corruption of the gospel.

Richard Baxter of Kidderminster believed that on account of Christ's obedience God had been pleased to modify the terms of the covenant of works so as to give men a new Law. Instead of perfect obedience, sincere obedience was substituted: God would accept faith and repentance, or "gospel-righteousness," as a justifying righteousness. "The Day of Judgement is not to try and judge Jesus Christ or his merits, but us: He will judge us by his new Law or Covenant, the sum of which is, Except ye repent, ye shall all perish: and, He that believeth shall be saved; and he that believeth not shall be condemned."

The demands of the moral law however are founded on everlasting, unchangeable righteousness. Salvation has been provided for sinners, not by lowering the standard of the law but by satisfying its demands. Baxter's scheme turned the covenant of grace into a new covenant of works. It meant that the sinner was justified by his own imperfect righteousness rather than by Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to him. This is surely an error. Rather, the holy and unalterable law of God must be our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, for He is "the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Rom. 10:4). We are to render obedience to the Lord but this can only be acceptable as the effect and not as the cause of justification.

4. Condition of Justification

The Larger Catechism speaks of faith as a "condition" required to interest sinners in Christ (Q.32) but later refers to it as an "instrument" (Q.73). Both ideas are valid in their proper context. Faith is a condition of justification, not in that faith has any merit of its own but because in the appointment of God there is a necessary connection made between the two. Faith is the hand or instrument which receives Christ and His righteousness. Just as it is not the hand but what is in the hand that nourishes the body, so it is not the act of receiving Christ's righteousness that justifies but the righteousness itself. "As for faith, it is but an instrument to apprehend and receive that which Christ, for His part, offereth and giveth" (William Perkins). We should stress that it is the only instrument.

As an instrument faith must be a renouncing of all self-righteousness. It is not an instrument by which sinners lay hold of justification. Some indeed have taught that the elect were justified from eternity, or when Christ died for their sins, or when He rose from the dead, and that all that takes place in time is that they come to the conscious knowledge of that sentence through faith. Virtual justification through our federal union with Christ must become real justification through a vital union. Only by faith do we lay hold of Jehovah our righteousness (Jer. 23:6); while in unbelief we are without Christ and in the state of condemnation and wrath. God from eternity decreed to justify the elect, but He decreed to justify them in time. From eternity He gave them to His Son to redeem them from the wrath and curse. Entering this world they are "by nature children of wrath, even as others" (Eph. 2:3). Only at God's appointed time are they called and actually justified.

5. Consequence of Justification

Because Protestants believe in a gracious justification they have always been charged with promoting antinomianism or practical lawlessness. We are accused of encouraging men to think, "Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? (Rom. 6:1). In reply we say emphatically with Paul, "God forbid"! We should note that:

a) justification, although different from sanctification, as a husband is different from his wife, is never to be divorced from it. The union with Christ which is accomplished by the Spirit in effectual calling gives rise to both. To be "in Christ" is to be a branch in a holy Vine (John 15:5) and a partaker of the divine nature (1 Pet. 1:4). Christ's righteousness is imputed in justification and imparted by the Holy Spirit in sanctification;

b) a justified sinner will love the God who has freely justified him and will desire to please Him in all things in gratitude for so great a gift. Those who come to Christ for righteousness wish thereafter to walk in the light.

What of the teaching of James, which caused Luther such difficulty that he referred to the apostle's writing as "an epistle of straw"? We read: "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (2:24). Thomas Vincent states: "Faith justifieth our persons, but works justify our faith, and declare us to be justified before men, who cannot see nor know our faith but by our works." And: "We are justified only by faith in Christ's righteousness without us, but this justification is always accompanied with sanctification, in which a righteousness is wrought within us, without which our justification cannot be true. By the same faith whereby our persons are justified our hearts are also purified."


At regeneration the great work of restoring the soul by renewing it in the divine image and likeness is simply begun: the plague of sin is not ended there and then. Justification is the first precious benefit of redemption which the believer enjoys. It is not however the whole of his inheritance. The God who is his Judge is also his Father and Sanctifier.

Justified by faith in Jesus Christ we know salvation in all the fulness of its divine works and acts. Regeneration is deliverance from the power of sin. Justification is deliverance from the penalty of sin. Adoption is deliverance from the pleasure of sin. Sanctification is deliverance from the pollution of sin. Glorification is deliverance from the presence of sin.