I have been talking recently with other men about a Reformed ecumenical movement in our area centered around the historic faith. We have been considering the Cambridge Declaration as possible means of a doctrinal unity to what we are considering. One of the elements within it is the emphasis on justification by faith alone or what Martin Luther called, “the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.” I thought it might be helpful to consider then what exactly justification is if it is so important. On that note, consider question 36 of the Baptist Catechism, which asks:
“What is justification?”
The answer is:
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
Here are my thoughts on this:
The doctrine of justification, being “declared righteous before the law”, is of critical importance to understanding our salvation. The great Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) once said called it the “doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” So, let us make sure we get this right!
First, we see that justification is an act of God through his free grace. We have done nothing to earn this declaration of our innocence before the law. God justifies the unrighteous purely by His own desire. But what exactly is happening in justification? Our answer says it is where God pardons all our sins. All of our sins, past, present, future, are declared to be pardoned by God, as if we have never committed them. Paul writes in Romans 3:24–25 that we are “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” God is righteous and cannot simply ignore sin. Instead, Jesus Christ died so that through His death we could be declared righteous, even though we are guilty before the law. Elsewhere in Romans 4:6–8, Paul continues by saying, “just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” The beauty of the doctrine of justification is that through it we are now said to be innocent before the Lord.
Second, we see that God accepts us as righteous in His sight. Paul talks about how we have become righteous because Christ became unrighteous for us in 2 Corinthians 5:19–21. He writes, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ, in reconciling the lost to God died so we might live and not have our sins counted against us. He became sin so that we might be righteous. So when God looks upon the believer, He sees only the righteousness of Christ. Take heart Christian, you are not guilty! Your sin has been forgiven through Christ!
Third, we note that it is only through the imputed righteousness of Christ that God sees us as righteous. It is not because of our righteousness, but because Christ has given us His righteousness. Through faith it is as if Christ’s righteousness is our righteousness. Paul addresses this in Romans 5:17–19 where he writes, “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Just as we became sinners because Adam’s sin was given to us, we are righteous because Christ’s righteousness has been given to us!
Finally, this justification is by faith alone. Paul writes in Galatians 2:16, “yet we know that person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, 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.” Again Paul writes in Philippians 3:9, “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” No works that we can do can make us righteous, in contrast to what Roman Catholicism teaches. We are only declared righteous by faith.