A Primer on Justification

by Jesse Quesada

“Justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” This saying, attributed to Martin Luther, articulates perfectly the sentiment of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians. There, Paul severely rebukes the members of that church for “quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). He even ventures so far as to say that those who commit this theological error, “have been severed from Christ” (Gal 1:6, 5:4)! What was this Galatian heresy that Paul was so worked up about? It was simply this: tinkering with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. More specifically, redacting “alone” from the equation and adding one requirement alongside faith: circumcision.

But surely Paul must have been overreacting or speaking in hyperbole to make such absolute declarations against the false teachers in Galatia for so small an amendment. Is the doctrine of justification by faith alone really that central to Christianity such that differing opinions about it warrant a divine curse (Gal 1:7-8)? As we explore justification together, we will find that not only was Luther justified in making this doctrine the sine qua non of the church, but that it is, in fact, the dividing line between Christianity and all false religion.

What is Justification?
Before we focus our attention on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, let’s take a brief look at the general concept of justification in Scripture. The primary words translated as “justify” or “vindicate” in Scripture are tsadaq in Hebrew and dikaioō in Greek. John Owen defines their usage as, “to show or declare one righteous; to appear righteous; to judge any one righteous.1 Said another way, to “justify” is a forensic act in which one is viewed, declared, considered, reckoned, or treated as righteous, and not necessarily according to actual righteousness inherent within the one being “justified.” This distinction is important because many false systems hold that the declaration of justification is necessarily tied to the inherent righteousness of the individual, i.e. self-merit. This is of course not the way Scripture speaks of justification. Let’s turn to some texts to see this.

Deuteronomy 25:1 reads, “If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked…”. Here we see the legal nature of justification, having to do with declaring a party as righteous, in opposition to condemning them as wicked. There is a converse relationship between justification and condemnation, demonstrating that they refer to the same type of act. Both are declarations reckoning a status to the party in question. One of acceptance, the other rejection. Jesus bolsters this idea in Matthew 12:37 when He says, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” It’s clear here that inherent righteousness, and a declaration of righteousness are not synonymous, but are two distinct realities. In other words, according to your righteous words will you receive a declaration of “righteousness.”

Bringing home the distinction between a declaration, or legal reckoning, of righteousness, and the actual possession of it, Isaiah 5:22-23 reads, “Woe to those…who justify the wicked for a bribe…”. That is, those who acquit wicked men with a declaration of “righteousness” and treat them as such. Now that we have seen that the general meaning of “justify” has to do with a legal, external rendering between parties, we can turn to the doctrine of justification, which has to do with a rendering between God and man. At the heart of this doctrine is the question: “How can man have a right standing before God?” To this we answer: “Justification by faith alone.”

What is the Doctrine of Justification?
There are many great, helpful, and lengthy definitions of the doctrine of justification available; however, I think the Westminster Shorter Catechism does an excellent job when it says “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.”2 Here we see that the doctrine of justification is much more than simply a declaration of righteousness by God. Commensurate with this declaration is pardon for sin, acceptance by God, and imputation of Christ’s righteousness, all received by faith. Most important of all, though, we see that this is a monergistic work of God.

Certainly, we are the beneficiaries of justification, but we must always hold that it is a sovereign act of God’s will apart from anything in us moving Him to act.

As mentioned above, whereas “justification” generally can be between any number of parties, the doctrine of justification is something that is exclusively an act of God toward man. It is “an act of God’s free grace.” In other words, it is not an act that originates with or issues forth from the activity of man, but is a gracious act belonging to God alone. God is the subject of justification (the one acting), and man is the passive object of His justifying grace (the one acted upon). John Owen notes, “The Scripture expresses it emphatically, that, ‘it is God that justifieth,’ Rom. viii. 33. And he assumes it to himself as his prerogative, to do what belongs thereunto. ‘I, even I am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember thy sins,’ Isa. xliii. 25.”3 Not only is the justifying act attributed to God alone, but the motivation for doing so is His own, self-glorifying will – not primarily a need arising from within man. Certainly, we are the beneficiaries of justification, but we must always hold that it is a sovereign act of God’s will apart from anything in us moving Him to act. And there is an important reason for this: our sin.

The Need for Justification
At first glance, it may seem perfunctory to establish our sinful state as the need for the justifying act of God. However, James Buchanan reminds us:

The best preparation for the study of this doctrine is—neither great intellectual ability, nor much scholastic learning,—but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God. A deep conviction of sin is the one thing needful in such an inquiry,—a conviction of the fact of sin, as an awful reality in our own personal experience,—of the power of sin, as an inveterate evil cleaving to us continually, and having its roots deep in the innermost recesses of our hearts,—and of the guilt of sin, past as well as present, as an offence against God, which, once committed, can never cease to be true of us individually, and which, however He may be pleased to deal with it, has deserved His wrath and righteous condemnation.4

Understanding the state of utter need is essential, not only to our grasping the doctrine of justification, but for our availing ourselves of the salvation found therein. An offered cure with no diagnosis will hardly do any good to a man incredulous to his condition. But a man convinced of his fatal diagnosis will gladly go under the knife so that he may live. In the same way, we must fully embrace our woeful state as sinners.

The psalmist’s rhetorical question in Psalm 103:3, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” begs for a clear answer: “no one.” It is a mistake to think that God’s default disposition towards man is propitious. On the contrary, Psalm 7:11 tell us that He “is a righteous judge…who has indignation every day.” He is an infinitely holy God whose “eyes are too pure to approve evil” (Hab 1:13). And although there are those who imagine God to be a 9th grade English teacher who grades on a curve, accepting less than perfect work, scaled to the failings of men, Jesus confirms God’s actual standard when He says, “you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Because God is infinitely holy, He cannot accept anything but perfection. Necessarily then, He must respond to sinners with divine hatred and wrath, for He “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Nah 1:3).

Unfortunately for us, Paul sets us all directly in the crosshairs of this condemnation when he declares, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). Worse still, not only are we presently unrighteous, but we are not even capable of effecting a change in our condition (Rom 8:7). We are no more capable of reforming our nature than the Ethiopian is to change his skin color, or the leopard its spots (Jer 13:23). With Lazarus, we lie in the tomb, dead and rotting, with no hope but for merciful resurrection. Enter, justification by faith.

The Need for Justification by Faith Alone
As we have seen, we find ourselves standing before God, worthy of nothing but a declaration of “condemned,” ready to receive the punishment attached thereto. Fortunately, God has not abandoned us to despair, but has informed us that our status before Him can be changed. But “by what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:27-28). Paul makes it clear here that works can have no place in our justification. There can be no meritorious cause in ourselves that can result in our justification. It can only come through faith.

But why faith? Paul answers, “in order that it may be in accordance with grace” (Rom 4:16). In God’s incomprehensible mercy and love, seeing our wretched state, He has determined to justify us apart from any works on our part, but only by His free grace. If God were to deal with us on the principle of works, there would be no hope, “for the wages of sin is death.” But if He deals with us according to His infinite grace, then “the free gift of God is eternal life” (Rom 6:23). To prove that this is indeed what God has determined to do, Paul points us to the life of Abraham.

In Romans 4, Paul builds his case, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (vv. 3-5). This is one of the clearest statements on the matter. Paul notes that righteousness was credited (or imputed) to Abraham – that is, he was given a declaration of righteousness in a way that was antithetical to works. Abraham was not owed a status of “righteous,” but he was credited one. Had this declaration been according to Abraham’s works, there would be no need for grace – it would have been a matter of debt. But God, being debtor to no man, imputes alien righteousness to the one who “believes in Him who justifies the ungodly.”

Driving the nail into the coffin of our merit, Paul lights upon the justifying event in Abraham’s life in relation to his circumcision. “How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised, and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised” (vv 10-11). The event in which Abraham was credited with righteousness takes place in Genesis 15:6. Abraham then receives the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17:24, at the age of ninety-nine. However, we see in chapter 16 that when Ishmael is born, Abraham was eighty-six years old. Not only, then, are these events separated literarily, they are separated chronologically by at least 14 years! This makes the conclusion unavoidable that works had no hand in Abraham’s justification, but only his faith.

Thus, faith alone, we have found, apart from any works, is the sole means of our justification. The example of Abraham is the end of all speculation on the matter. And all this, Paul observes, is not just historical tedium, but has been written “for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (v 24).

Faith’s Causal Relation to Justification
We’ve already seen that Paul definitively affirms that justification is by faith. But “by” has a range of meanings. In what sense does Paul intend this? We know that our works are not meritorious before God, but is Paul saying that faith is somehow meritorious in their stead? Or maybe even that faith causes justification? At this point it will be beneficial for us to discuss the role of faith and causality as it relates to justification.

When we discuss the “cause” of a thing, we typically are not interested in being overly precise in our language. For instance, after someone cuts us off on the freeway, we might rationalize our anger by saying, “that driver made me lose my temper!” When we say this, we don’t actually mean that the driver exercised irresistible control over our innermost being to create anger where it never existed prior. What we mean is that the driver’s actions were a facilitating event for the rise of our temper. However, while near accuracy may be well and good for road rage and shotguns, brain surgery requires absolute precision.

When Michelangelo sculpted David, there were different causes at play. The material cause was the marble the statue was made of; the efficient cause was Michelangelo as an agent, acting upon the marble to create his masterpiece. But Michelangelo didn’t simply actuate David in a vacuum – he caused it through the instrumentality of his chisel. The chisel is therefore the instrumental cause of the statue of David. The chisel could not claim to have any agency in the transaction, but was simply a tool used by the sculptor. Similarly, with justification, we have already seen that God is its efficient cause. He is the one accomplishing this act alone. However, the instrumental cause He uses to apply this reality to the believer is faith. Faith is the chisel that sculpts the masterpiece.

While this may seem to some as philosophical nitpicking, the reason this has been so important in the history of theology is that confusion at this point leads to works-based systems, and therefore an attack on the gospel itself. So, for example, if faith were an efficient cause of justification, then God would be removed from the picture completely. Faith as an entity of our will would be the one justifying us – that is to say, we would be justifying ourselves. That would do little to resolve our standing before God. Or again, if faith were the material cause of justification, then literally faith would be justification. Justification would no longer be something outside of faith, but would exist as a reality only so long as faith is maintained. Which is another way of saying that your faith keeps you justified – works-based. Far from being a meritorious work, then, as an instrumental cause, faith is simply the channel through which God makes His grace to flow.

Justifying Faith Defined
What is faith, though? Well, James makes it clear that there are two different kinds of a faith: a faith which justifies, and a faith which does not. Counterfeit faith is marked by mere intellectual assent – “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). The demons know the facts of the gospel better than most, and yet without justifying faith, it avails for nothing. Justifying faith, on the other hand, is an exercise of the regenerated will whereby we place all our trust, confidence, and hope of deliverance in Christ, as He is revealed in the gospel, casting the entirety of our person upon Him alone for salvation, righteousness, and rest.

The demons know the facts of the gospel better than most, and yet without justifying faith, it avails for nothing.

By this faith alone will a man be justified. When he renounces all reliance upon himself for saving, and places it in Christ alone. Paul explains that those with justifying faith “put no confidence in the flesh,” and can say along with him, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ,  and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:3, 8-9). Certainly, Paul could not have made it clearer in this string of renunciations, that we have faith in absolutely nothing, save Christ. This is the nature of justifying faith.

The Ground of Justification
Finally, this brings us to what really lies at the heart of justification: the righteousness of Christ. Again, “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.”5 We have spent a lot of time discussing God’s free grace, our righteous status before Him, and the role of faith in justification, but we have not yet touched upon the ground of our justification. This is truly the sinew that holds the doctrine of justification together.

With all this talk of being credited righteousness though, it must be asked, “what righteousness?” Paul explains, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested,…even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ…whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood… This was to demonstrate His righteousness…so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:21-22, 25-26). Without a proper ground for our “not guilty” declaration, it is a meaningless legal fiction, and ultimately calls into question the justice of God. God cannot, without undoing His own righteousness, simply acquit the guilty without restitution. Guilt requires satisfaction. And so, He preserved His justice through the provision of Christ. Paul establishes further that the righteousness imputed to us is “the righteousness of God” manifested apart from works, found in the person and work of Jesus.

Historically, theologians have identified the righteousness with which we are credited as two-fold: Christ’s active and passive righteousness. Christ’s “active” righteousness describes the obedience Jesus rendered with His entire life, upholding and fulfilling the law of God completely, and without defect. It might be more helpful to think of this as Christ’s “positive” righteousness, or as Christ’s “righteousness account” being infinitely filled. This “righteous currency” found in Christ was not only quantitatively perfect, as a result of His moment by moment obedience to all the demands of the law, through His dependence on the Holy Spirit, but it was also qualitatively perfect as a result of the hypostatic union. Owen notes,

This capacity was given to…Christ by virtue of the hypostatic union, and not otherwise. The righteousness of Christ himself as performed in the human nature, would not have been sufficient for the justification and salvation of the church, had it not been the righteousness of his person, who is both God and man; for “God redeemed his church with his own blood.6

The “passive” righteousness of Christ refers to His sufferings and substitutionary death on the cross, exhausting the wrath of God against our sins, and securing plenary absolution for His elect. It has often been recognized that “passive” is a very unhelpful term. There was certainly nothing passive about the work of the Son on the cross. I find it better, as with Christ’s active righteousness, to think in terms of what each one accomplishes, both positive and negative. His “active” righteousness provides the infinitely “positive” currency with which we are credited, and His “passive” righteousness pays the infinitely “negative” debt we owed. This great exchange is often called “double imputation”: where, in Christ’s death on the cross, He is imputed with our sins, and because of His perfect life and nature, we are imputed with His righteousness. Or as Paul says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21).

Imputed or Infused?
It’s important to note that this righteousness properly belongs to Christ alone, in the same way that our sins belong to us alone. The great exchange of justification happens by imputation, not infusion. Justification is not like a gas tank. Jesus doesn’t siphon out our 87 unleaded fuel and pump us full of 93 premium Chevron with Techron protection. That would make our indwelling righteousness the ground of justification, and once again result in works-based salvation. The Scriptures are clear that we receive an alien righteousness, external to ourselves, which is credited to our account, not ours intrinsically. Likewise, our sins which are imputed to Christ do not make Him actually sinful. Rather, He is reckoned as sinful in our stead, and treated as such, and we are reckoned with His righteousness and treated as such. And thank God for this, for just as Christ’s righteousness will never change, so the declaration of “not guilty” over us will never change! Our justification is eternally secure and safe in Christ.

Hopefully by now we have seen just how important the doctrine of justification by faith alone is. It is not simply a shibboleth by which we guard our theological borders. Without it, we have no hope of rescue before the bar of God. Because of it we “obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away” (1 Pet 1:4). This should cause our hearts to swell with gratitude to Christ, who secured our salvation with unfathomable love. With every act of obedience, and every holy intention of the heart, He procured an eternal righteousness for us. With every temptation resisted, every second dependent on the Spirit, He obeyed on our behalf. With every step He took, even from infancy, He walked the road to Calvary. With every drop of blood shed, and every sip of God’s wrathful cup He drank down, He endured for us. And now, having risen according to the power of His indestructible life, possessing an unchangeable righteousness His own, He has cemented the ground of our justification in Himself – our solid Rock – so that by faith alone we might receive the unalterable verdict: “This is My beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Let this always be our only hope.

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.7


1.     John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification, 141
2.     Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 33.
3.     John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 17
4.     James Buchanan, Justification, 222
5.     Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 33.

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