“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:28
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a 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.” Galatians 2:15-16
When Protestants think of the Reformation, the great doctrine of justification by faith alone comes to mind and rightfully so. The Reformation began with Luther’s rediscovery of the liberating truth that sinners are declared righteous (“justified”) in God’s sight through simple faith in Jesus Christ. This is called Sola Fide (“Faith Alone”). The two main books of the Bible that discuss justification by faith alone are Romans and Galatians, and these two books were instrumental in Luther’s conversion to the Reformation doctrine. Years later in 1647 the Westminster divines would provide an excellent summary of the doctrine in the answer to Shorter Catechism 33: “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.” This definition is helpful because it connects Sola Gratia (“Grace Alone”) with Sola Fide (“Faith Alone”). We are told that justification is both “an act of God’s free grace” (Sola Gratia) and “received by faith alone” (Sola Fide). The point of the statement is to show us that God’s grace is the sole and sufficient cause of our salvation, and that our faith is the sole and sufficient instrument by which we receive our salvation. God’s grace speaks of the divine side of salvation; faith speaks of the human side. We may observe the inseparability of Sola Gratia and Sola Fide in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” So then, Sola Gratia and Sola Fide convey the truth that we are saved by grace through faith. The preposition “through” indicates that faith is the means or the instrument of our justification. We also learn from Shorter Catechism 33 that our justification consists in both the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Both the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness are essential. Since Jesus died for the law’s penalty, God can justly forgive my sin. Since Jesus obeyed the law’s precept by his entire life of obedience, God can credit Christ’s righteousness to me for my complete acceptance. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christians who have been justified by faith alone are more than forgiven (as wonderful as that is); we are the righteousness of God. God has “blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6) with his perfect acceptance. When God looks at us, he views us as we are in Jesus Christ (righteous), not as we are in Adam (sinners) (Romans 5:12-21). We are “found in him, not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9). Thus good works and merit are completely excluded from our justification. We are declared righteous in God’s sight on the basis of what Jesus has done in our behalf, not on the basis of our works. Our best works are but filthy rages in the eyes of a just and holy God (Isaiah 64:6). “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). When we looked at Sola Gratia, we learned that works and grace are opposed to one another (Romans 11:6); we see now that works and faith are opposed to one another when it comes to our justification. Romans 4:4-5 makes clear the contrast between works and faith: “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.” The contrast is between works receiving deserved wages and faith receiving an undeserved gift. Luther called faith “the empty hand” with which we receive the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Toplady’s hymn confirms this truth: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.” We have no righteousness in ourselves to offer God; we must receive the righteousness that he alone provides through faith in Jesus Christ. Roman Catholics often accuse us of minimizing the role of good works. Nothing could be further from the truth! Although we deny that good works are instrumental in our justification, we affirm that good works are involved in our sanctification. Sanctification is the process of becoming holy, but sanctification only happens to those who have already been justified by faith alone. We teach that good works are the fruit and evidence of true saving faith in Christ. The Bible reveals this in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” So we are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works. If we have true and saving faith, then we will perform good works because faith without works is dead (James 2:17). In his commentary on Galatians, Luther explains the relationship between justification by faith alone and a life of good works. He says, “Christians are not made righteous by doing righteous things; but having been made righteous by faith in Christ, they do righteous things.” When we believe that we are righteous and accepted in God’s sight through faith in Christ, we are forever changed. We desire to obey God because we love him and are thankful for Jesus Christ. Christians do not obey God because we fear hell or desire to earn divine acceptance by being good. We do his will because the love of Christ compels us. We keep the commandments of God and do not find them to be burdensome (1 John 5:3). Our obedience to Christ is our joyful response to his love for us. We are not running on the treadmill of human performance. Instead, we are resting in the perfection of Christ and being gradually changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17) with new affections and desires. We desire to please to God in all that we do. Let us live this day in light of God’s acceptance of us in Jesus “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25)!