Reformed Christians affirm without hesitation that the doctrine of justification is the article of faith by which the church stands or falls. Although the oft-cited comment is attributed to Martin Luther, it was actually the Reformed theologian, J. H. Alsted (1588-1638), who first put these words to paper–no doubt echoing Martin Luther in doing so.
The reason why the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, is so important is because it is so closely tied to the gospel and the saving work of Jesus Christ. If we do not understand how it is that we as sinners are declared right before a holy God (which is what it means to be “justified”), we may not only misunderstand the gospel–and therefore risk standing before God on the day of judgment expecting that our own righteousness will be sufficient–but we will miss out on the wonderful comfort which this doctrine provides for us.
The good news is that as justified sinners–our sin has been reckoned to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness has been reckoned to us (Romans 5:12, 18-19)–we now possess the greatest gift imaginable, a conscience free from fear, terror, and dread (2 Tim. 4:18). The knowledge that our sins are forgiven and that God is as pleased with us every bit as much as he is with his own dear Son (2 Corinthians 5:21), not only quiets our conscience and creates a wonderful sense of joy and well-being, but it also provides powerful motivation to live a life of gratitude before God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7). In fact, understanding this doctrine is the only way we will be able to give all glory and thanks to God, which is the ultimate goal of our justification.
We need to be perfectly clear here–we are justified by good works. Not our good works, mind you, but Jesus Christ’s good works, which just like his sacrificial death, were done for us and in our place. Jesus Christ not only died for our sins, but through his life of perfect obedience to God’s commandments he fulfilled all righteousness (Romans 5:18-19). In Philippians 3:4-11, Paul speaks of this righteousness of Christ which comes from God through faith. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 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—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
But how is it that our sins are imputed (reckoned, credited) to Christ and his merits are imputed to us? This occurs only through the means of faith, which is why we cannot be justified on the basis of anything we have done or even could do since all of our works are tainted by sin and always done from sinful motives. Faith is the instrument which links us to Christ so that all that his righteousness becomes ours. In Galatians 3:23-26, Paul states “before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
It is important to understand that faith is not that one work God expects us to perform. Faith is not something which God sees in our hearts which he then rewards with a status of “justified”–a view widely held throughout American evangelicalism. Rather, as J. I. Packer so helpfully puts it, faith is “an appropriating instrument, an empty hand outstretched to receive the free gift of God’s righteousness in Christ.” Paul speaks precisely in these terms in Romans 4:4-5 when he writes, “now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Scripture is clear that faith links us to Christ, and through faith in Christ we receive all that he has to give us–namely the forgiveness of sin accomplished by his death, and the gift of righteousness based upon his obedience. Through faith in Jesus, our sin is imputed to him so that he pays for these sins on the cross and through that same faith his righteousness (his merits and holy works) becomes ours. This is what we mean when we speak of being justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. This is the gospel! God freely gives in Christ what he demands of us under the law. In Romans 3:21-26, Paul makes this very point. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and 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. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
If we are not clear about this great doctrine, we have no assurance of our salvation, no foundation for living the Christian life, and we have no gospel to preach to the unbelieving world around us. Apart from this doctrine, ours is a fallen church.