Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Justification by Faith Alone: How people are made right with God


Four questions to consider on the subject of how people are made right with God?
This question is given an answer through a word Bible teachers use called "justification".  This one area of the doctrine of salvation is "the area" that lies at the heart of the Gospel.  It is this very issue that the Reformer Martin Luther determined to be what causes the church to rise or fall.  It was, and to this day still is the continental divide between Roman Catholics and Bible believing Christianity. 

What exactly is meant by the phrase "Justification by faith"?
The late James Montgomery Boice, an ardent defender of Biblical inerrancy in the twentieth century, writes this definition of justification in his book - "Whatever happened to the Gospel of Grace?": "Justification is an act of God by which he declares sinners to be righteous by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone." 1

The biblical doctrine of Justification by faith aims to answer four very important questions: "How are people made right with God?" "What is it that makes a person right with God?" Thirdly, "How does God go about making a person right with Himself?" Then fourthly, "how does a person stay in the right with God?" 

Where Baptists have stood on the issue of Justification by Faith Alone
With a clearer understanding of what we mean by the term: "Justification by Faith Alone", what then of groups such as Baptists?  A recent book commenting on the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message has this to say about Justification by Faith: "Given current confusions concerning the doctrine of Justification prevalent in the larger evangelical world, it is helpful that the Baptist Faith and Message makes it clear that sinners are justified by faith alone - on the basis of Christ's righteousness alone."2

Other older Baptist doctrinal statements, from the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, to the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of 1742, to the Baptist Confession of faith 1689, echo this same idea.  Those former generations defined justification as occuring by grace alone, through faith alone, whereby the work of Christ is "credited" to the sinner who trusts in Him.

How the Bible unfolds the issue of how one is made right with God
The reason I have labored the above is to demonstrate the importance and consistent testimony of other Christians back through the ages.  Hearing the testimony of the past Christians is an important part of developing a sharper understanding of doctrine.  However that testimony can never be equated with scripture.  It is the scriptures which govern what we ultimately believe about issues such as Justification by faith.  So how does Scripture answer the above four questions through its teaching of justification by faith.

1. How are people made right with God? By Grace Alone through Faith Alone.  Through God's declaration of that person's "rightness" or righteousness before His sight by grace alone through faith alone. (Ephesians 2:8-9) 

2. What is it that makes a person right with God? Christ's righteousness.  That is, the righteousness of God earned by Jesus Christ in His perfect life, perfect death and powerful resurrection. (Philippians 3:7-14)  At saving faith, God justifies or aquits the sinner by crediting them with the righteousness of Christ.  This idea of crediting someone with another's accomplishments is what we call "imputation". 

3. How does God go about granting the righteousness of Christ to a person? God credits the believer with the righteousness earned by Christ.  When a person by grace alone through faith alone trusts in Christ Person and work on their behalf, God credits them with Christ's righteousness.  This means then that even though the sinner is not actually righteous at salvation, God declares Him to be so, since it is Christ's righteousness that is being credited to the sinner's account.  For it was on the cross that God credited to Christ's account my unrighteousness, even though Christ was actually sinless. (Romans 3-4; Galatians 3-4; 2 Corinthians 5:15-21) 

4. How does a person stay in the "right" with God?  Justification deals with God declaring me and crediting me with Christ's righteousness at saving faith.  It is from the root of Christ's righteousness credited in justification that my own progressive, experiential righteousness (what is called "sanctification") bears fruit.  I'm essentially kept in my salvation by the same basis I first entered - by reliance upon Christ's Person and accomplishment.  
Justification and Sanctification, though related, must be distinguished if the Gospel is to be understood rightly
I'm becoming in experience through sanctification whom God has declared me to be already in Christ at justification.  Though related graces, both justification and sanctification must be distinguished if a biblical understanding of salvation is to be maintained.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church consistently confuses these two doctrines, leading it to an incorrect view on how a man is made right with God.  3

Biblically understanding the relationship between faith and actions (or works)
A truly converted heart is saved by grace through faith alone, and lives out the Christian life with a faith that is never alone.  Works proceed from true saving faith. (James 2:13)  My experiential righteousness grows forth from who I am in Christ's righteousness credited to me in justification.  Thus it only stands that I remain right with God in the same manner I entered into relationship with Him - in Christ's righteousness alone. (Philippians 3:7-14; Titus 3:5; 2 Peter 1:4-11) A true Christian, operating from the once credited justifying grace, will want to continue progressing experientially in sanctifying grace.

End Notes_____________
1 Boice, James Montgomery. "Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?" Cross Way Books. 2001

2 Blount, Douglass K. and Joseph D. Wooddell. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers. 2007 

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church -  Part Three: Life In Christ Section One Man's Vocation Life in the Spirit, Chapter Three- God's Salvation: Law and Grace, Article 2 - Grace and Justification.