By Joel R. Beeke
As a doctrine, justification by faith alone is much more than the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation, or a cardinal truth of the Reformed faith. It certainly is those things, but even more importantly, justification by faith alone offers the only way for fallen human beings to find the way back to God and stands at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Take justification by faith alone away, and the Christian faith loses its uniqueness as a message of hope and salvation and is reduced to being but one more scheme among many others, one more way for fallen men to try to rehabilitate themselves and make themselves acceptable to God. And, it should be added, such schemes have no more certainty of success than any of the others that the founders of the great world religions have proposed.
We must start with three essential points of Bible doctrine, all of which are amply confirmed by human experience. In the light of these truths, justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ and His righteousness is the only real hope for fallen humanity and an essential Christian doctrine, indeed, the very pith and marrow of the true gospel.
First Starting Point: The Necessity of Faith
“No man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18a). Because God is a Spirit,1 it follows that He is “eternal, immortal, invisible” (1 Tim. 1:17). To draw near to God, to be reconciled to Him, and to hold communion with Him, we must believe first of all that He is, that there is a God who made heaven and earth; and that we are His workmanship, made in His image, and therefore capable of such spiritual acts.2
“Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6a). This apostolic dictum is addressed to the heart of the matter. To be justified in God’s sight is to be pleasing, or acceptable to Him. However we are to obtain such justification or acceptance with God, on whatever grounds, the only instrument or means suited to the nature of God and our relationship to Him, is faith, that is, by trusting in His love, His words of promise, and His willingness to take us back.
There is no other meaningful way to talk about God or relate to Him. Even the witness of the “intelligent design” of creation as God’s handiwork3 does not furnish us with anything that obviates the need for faith, since we must decide whether or not to believe that witness.4
At every point, in fact, at least for the present time, “We walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). The perfect reasonableness of Christian teaching, the demonstrable facts of redemptive history, and the wealth of corroborating testimony from creation, history, and human experience, take nothing away from the necessity of faith on man’s part, if ever he is to know God, to love Him, or to have communion with Him in this life and the next.
Second Starting Point: Our Longing for Justification
For more than a century the social sciences have been telling us that human beings suffer from a terrible sense of estrangement or anomie, a condition “characterized by personal disorientation, anxiety, and social isolation.”5 “Disorientation” means we sense that we have lost our way, that our lives seem to have no meaning. “Anxiety” haunts us in the form of a multitude of fears both rational and irrational. “Social isolation” means that our relationships with others are troubled, broken, or wanting in any real intimacy or depth.
None of this information about fallen man is any news to Calvinists. For a very long time we have confessed that we are prone by nature to hate God and our neighbor.6 Man’s depravity as a sinner has reached to every part of the human constitution and impacted every human relationship. In such a condition happiness is simply beyond our reach.
As a result, we are displeased with ourselves and unhappy with our lives, in a very general way, beyond particular issues or concerns. We truly are estranged or alienated, but not just from ourselves, our neighbors and our world. We are cut off from God. We exist as “aliens … and strangers … having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Although we are creatures made in the image of God, we are estranged from the God who made us. This fundamental estrangement gives rise to every other form of alienation experienced by us and to the generalized sense of “disorientation, anxiety, and social isolation” that makes our lives so empty and unhappy.
It is not too much to say that behind and beneath every other longing in the fallen heart of man is the longing to be reconciled to God, to be justified in His sight. This longing for God is hidden by a thousand disguises and is suppressed and denied by many; but it is there, and it must be there so long as the human bearer of the Creator‘s image is cut off and at odds with the divine Creator.
So we find recorded among the prayers of the saints this earnest appeal: “Enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified” (Psalm 143:2). Likewise, this frank acknowledgment of our hopeless condition: “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Psalm 130:3). Or this heartfelt cry, “Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities” (Psalm 51:9). The psalmist notes that wealthy men may wield a lot of power in this world, but “none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him” (Psalm 49:7).
Third Starting Point: The Utter Insufficiency of Our Good Works
Preserved in the collective memory of the human race is God’s counsel to Cain: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:7a). As a result, the major world religions, including historic forms of Christianity such as Roman Catholicism and heretical forms such as Mormonism, all hold forth some system of good works one must do to be accepted by God.
The problem is complicated by the fact of human sin, because equally, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18a). A very large part of the longing for justification is rooted in this knowledge, conscious or unconscious, that God is angry with us because of our hardness of heart and our wrongdoing.
Long ago it was impressed on the human conscience that some kind of sacrifice is needed to take away the guilt of sin: “Without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22b). So alongside the systems prescribing what good works must be done to find acceptance with God, there have also been penitential systems of sacrifice to atone for sin, involving various ways to mortify the flesh and curb our bent for sinning.
So far so good, one might say, but in human experience it never works according to plan. The wise master or father confessor tells us what we must do, and we try to do it. In doing these works, we only discover new ways to sin against God. We offer the prescribed prayers while entertaining sinful lusts and contemplating sinful deeds in our hearts.7 We pray, but only to gratify our own selfish desires.8 We do the good deeds, but secretly hope that others are watching and are impressed by them.9 And how many good works must we do?10
At the deepest level, moreover, we find no satisfaction in doing these things, no sense of real merit on our part, since we are only doing the things we ought to do as God’s creatures and servants.11 Where is the merit in that? We also discover that our program of good deeds has a built-in limitation: “For what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I … how to perform that which is good I find not” (Rom. 7:15b, 18c). Sooner or later, we reach the limit of how much good we really can do and begin to question just how good it really is.12
Sacrifices have been offered since time began, but the blood of bulls and goats never fully took away our sense of alienation from God, no matter how often they were slain at the altar.13 Even today we adhere to such customs as the “Lenten Sacrifice,” denying ourselves the pleasure of chocolate in the weeks before Easter, or impose some penance on ourselves, saying a particular form of prayer so many times in the day; but these practices only inflate our pride and fail abysmally as a strategy for bringing carnal desires under control.14
From time to time the roof falls in completely and we are devastated to learn what terrible things we can do and have done, such as David’s triple sin of adultery with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband, Uriah, and the lies told to accomplish both.15 We are forced to acknowledge that we are sinners from birth, sinners by nature, and no amount of good works, prayers, or ritual sacrifice can atone for what we have done.16
The Consequence: Justification by Faith Alone
The necessity of faith, the longing for justification, and the insufficiency (to say the least!) of our good works, leads to one conclusion or consequence. If we are to be reconciled to God, it must be by faith. If we are to find our way back to God, we must be justified from the guilt of all sin. Since our good works cannot be the whole or even part of our righteousness before God,17 our justification, if there is to be such, must be by faith alone; faith in God, in His word of promise, and in His provision for us, that is, in Christ and His righteousness.
This truth is the very thing revealed in the gospel: “for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith … even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Rom. 1:17; 3:22). Those who believe this gospel revelation are justified from the guilt of all sin18 and reconciled to God, by the death of His Son.19 They have received the atonement,20 they have peace with God,21 and they have been delivered from the wrath of God that is to come on the whole world.22
But how is this experienced? How does faith experientially appropriate Christ and His righteousness? In a word, by the Spirit and Word of God, justifying faith is a saving grace which empties me of my own righteousness and moves me to receive, rest upon, and live out of Christ and His righteousness for pardon and salvation. Let me explain.
Faith is an experiential convicting, soul-emptying grace that makes us conscious of the desperate situation we are in because of sin and the tragic judgment we deserve; it empties us of all our righteousness and drives us to the righteousness of Christ, so that we wholeheartedly “assent to the truth of the gospel” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 73). Faith believes from the heart that which the Scriptures teach about ourselves, the holiness of God, and the saviorhood of Christ. Faith surrenders to the evangel and falls into the outstretched arms of God. Faith flees with all the soul’s poverty to Christ’s riches, with all the soul’s guilt to Christ as reconciler, with all the soul’s bondage to Christ as liberator. Faith confesses with Augustus Toplady:
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, Saviour, or I die.
Faith, then, enables us to lay hold of Christ and His righteousness and experience pardon and peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7). Faith apprehends and “closes with” Christ in warm believing embrace, surrendering all of self, clinging to His Word, relying on His promises. Faith reposes in the person of Christ—coming, hearing, seeing, trusting, taking, embracing, knowing, rejoicing, loving, triumphing. Faith, Luther writes, “clasps Christ as a ring clasps its jewel”; faith appropriates with a believing heart the perfect righteousness, satisfaction and holiness of Christ. It weds the soul to Christ and lives out of Christ; Christ is faith’s only object and only expectation. Faith commits the total person to the total person of Christ.
Have you exercised saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you know the truth? Are you persuaded of the truth? Have you acted upon the truth? By the Spirit’s grace, have you been emptied of your own righteousness and been drawn to wholly assent to the gospel? Have you truly repented of sin and believing in Christ alone for salvation, have you entrusted your life to Him and His righteousness? Have you clasped Christ as a ring clasps it jewel, and are you now living out of Him as your all-in-all? If so, then all of the righteousness of Jesus Christ has been transferred by God to your account in heaven. If so, God looks upon you and sees the perfect righteousness of Christ Himself. It is on this basis alone that a righteousness from God is given to us, and it is by faith alone. This is the root of justification.
At the heart of the experience of justification by faith alone is the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to the believer. As it was with Abraham, so with the Christian: “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Believers obtain the blessedness decribed by David in Psalm 32, “the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works” (Rom. 4:6).23 As a result the believer can say that it is “as if I never had had, nor comitted any sin; yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me.”24
Since this truth of justification by faith alone stands at the very heart of the gospel revelation, to deny it or to modify it, to make room for claims of human merit based on works that we have done, is simply to deny the true gospel. This denial destroys the gospel altogether. It forces us back to some worn-out system of good works, some weary way of penance, in a desperate bid for the love and forgiveness of God. We must add, it is also a bid that holds no hope or promise of success, since it could only succeed if the impossible were to happen: if God’s mercy were arbitrarily to overwhelm and overrule the claims of God’s justice.25
Thanks be to God, there is way of justification taught in Holy Scripture, the way of justification by faith in Jesus Christ and by that faith alone. “Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things” (Acts 13:38b–39a). The experience of Christians shows that this truth of justification by faith alone satisfies the longings of the heart and opens the way to a new and blessed life in communion with our divine Creator and with His Son, Jesus Christ.26
Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, a pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, editor of Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, editorial director of Reformation Heritage Books, president of Inheritance Publishers, vice-president of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society, and an author of several dozen books.
1 John 4:24a. Thanks to Ray B. Lanning for his valuable assistance in writing this article.
2 Genesis 1:26, 27; Heidelberg Catechism, Question 6.
3 Psalm 19:1-3; Romans 1:18-20
5 Webster‘s Third New International Dictionary.
6 Heidelberg Catechism, Question 5.
7 Psalm 66:18; Isaiah 1:15.
8 James 4:3.
9 Matthew 6:1-6.
10 Galatians 3:10; James 2:10, 11.
11 Luke 17:10.
13 Hebrews 10:1-4.
14 Mattthew 6:5-8; Colossians 2:20-23.
15 2 Samuel 11.
16 Psalm 51.
17 Heidelberg Catechism, Question 62.
18Acts 13:38, 39.
21 Romans 5:1.
221 Thessalonians 1:10.
23 See also Psalm 32:1, 2a.
24Heidelberg Catechism, Question 60.
25Ibid., Questions 9-11.
261 John 1:3.