A Primer on Justification: Part 8

Devotionals > A Primer on Justification: Part 8

A Primer on Justification: Part 8

October 24, 2016


photo-1476087433162-979f1a57093fThis article is the eighth in a ten-part series by Dr. Ryken that we are gradually making available. Find the other articles: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.

  Faith, and Faith Alone When Jesus explained the true way of justification to his disciples, he was careful to distinguish between faith and obedience. The disciples asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29). The Philippian jailor put the same basic question to the apostle Paul: “What must I do to be saved?” Paul gave the same answer Jesus gave: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). In other words, there is nothing we can do to justify ourselves to God. The only righteousness he accepts comes “apart from law” (Rom. 3:21). Thus the only thing we can do is put our faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. If we trust in him, and in his justifying work on the cross, then God will declare us righteous. We are acceptable to God—not by keeping his law, but by trusting in the only man who ever did, Jesus Christ. The difference between being justified by doing and justified by believing is beautifully illustrated in the conversion of Martin Luther. In the days when he was still a monk, the famous theologian was deeply impressed by a verse from the prophet Habakkuk, as quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians: “The righteous will live by faith” (Gal. 3:11; cf. Hab. 2:4). Luther encountered this verse in the monastery at Erfurt, although at first he was uncertain what it meant. Later he went through a dark period of illness and depression during which he imagined that he was under the wrath of God. Lying on a bed in Italy, and fearing that he was soon to die, Luther found himself repeating the words over and over again: “The righteous will live by his faith. The righteous will live by his faith.” Mercifully, Luther recovered, and not long afterwards he proceeded to Rome, where he visited the church of St. John Lateran. The pope had promised an indulgence forgiving the sins of any pilgrim who mounted the church’s staircase, which was alleged to have come from the judgment hall of Pontius Pilate. Believing that the steps were stained with the very blood of Christ, pilgrims ascended the stairs on their knees, pausing frequently to pray and kiss the holy staircase. Luther’s story continues in the words of his son, from a manuscript preserved in the library of Rudolstadt: “As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of the prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind: ‘The just shall live by faith.’ Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenberg, and took this as the chief foundation of all his doctrine.” Luther no longer believed that there was anything he could do to gain favor with God, and he began to live instead by faith in God’s Son. Later he said, “Before those words broke upon my mind I hated God and was angry with him. . . . But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood those words—‘The just shall live by faith!’ ‘The just shall live by faith!’—then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God.”1 When the Bible says that we are justified “by faith” or “through faith,” this is really another way of saying that we are justified by Christ. Faith is merely the instrument of our justification, the channel by which we receive the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In the words of J. I. Packer, faith is “the outstretched empty hand which receives righteousness by receiving Christ.” Similarly, J. C. Ryle defined true faith as “laying hold of a Savior’s hand, leaning on a husband’s arm, and receiving a physician’s medicine. [Faith] brings with it nothing to Christ but a sinful man’s soul. It gives nothing, contributes nothing, pays nothing, performs nothing. It only receives, takes, accepts, grasps, and embraces the glorious gift of justification which Christ bestows.” This means that, properly speaking, it is not faith itself (or even the doctrine of justification by faith) that saves us. Rather, it is Christ who saves us, with faith simply operating as the means by which we appropriate Christ. In Calvin’s words, “Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man.”2 Although Romans 3 does not say that justification is “by faith alone” (at least in so many words), this is what the passage clearly implies, particularly at its close: “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom. 3:27-28; cf. Gal. 2:16). If we were justified by works, or even by faith plus works, then salvation would be something to boast about (see Eph. 2:9). As it is, however, no one will ever be able to boast of making it to heaven on the strength of his or her own merits. We are justified by the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, and there is nothing more that needs to be done, except to believe. To quote from The Gospel Coalition’s Confession of Faith, “We believe that God justifies and sanctifies those who by grace have faith in Jesus.”   Footnotes:

1 James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1996), 2:91-92.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, 20-21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), III.xi.2.

2Dr. Philip Ryken serves as the president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.]]>


Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.


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