By Justin Carnley
Justificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae—”justification is the article by which the church stands or falls.” That is what Martin Luther said in the early 17th century. To Luther, and many others, there were few things more precious than the recovery of the doctrine of justification alone by Christ alone. But the majority today treats the doctrine as really not that important. We have heard the words “justification by faith alone” so many times that they have lost their meaning. The words have become little more than an evangelical slogan. Have we forgotten the meaning and importance of this precious biblical teaching? John Calvin, in his Institutes of The Christian Religion, wrote, “[Justification] is the main hinge on which religion turns…for unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is…you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.” Calvin understood that the most critical need any of us has is to know how we can be reconciled to our Creator. None of us can escape the reality of our unrighteousness before God. We can only enjoy fellowship with Him by being found righteous in His sight. This is why the doctrine of Sola Fide (justification by faith alone) is so important.
So what does it mean to be justified by faith in Christ alone? First we must examine our inability to justify ourselves on the basis of our own righteousness. The Apostle Paul writes, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight” (Romans 3:19-20). Whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, no sinner can be found righteous before God by keeping the law. This is because one must keep the law perfectly if one seeks to attain righteousness by doing the law. However, no one has done this. Only Jesus Christ accomplished perfect obedience to all aspects of the law. As a result of our imperfection, we all deserve wrath, condemnation, and eternal punishment. So where’s the good news? The good news is that God has provided us with a righteousness that comes by simply believing in Christ and in Christ alone.
But why is righteousness by faith only, and why is it for all who believe and not just for the Jews who believe? Paul gives the answer in Romans 1:18-3:20, where he argues that all have failed to obey the Lord, both Jew and Gentile. The reality is that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Our depravity is what makes justification by faith alone so necessary. The only remedy is Jesus Christ. The only basis for obtaining a right standing with God is “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. Since our effort has no place in this, there is no room for any boasting. No amount of good works merits us righteous in God’s sight. Instead, we must boast only in Christ and what He has accomplished on our behalf.
So where does good works come in? Does justification make them obsolete? James addresses this issue when he says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). He’s not saying that faith plus works equals justification. What he means is that a living faith by its very nature reflects the One on whom our faith rests. We are not saved by our works, but works flow from saving faith and prove it to be genuine.