“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) When Martin Luther began to ask the Lord, “How is a person justified in your sight?” he knew the importance of that question. The answer would determine his eternal destiny. Luther believed in heaven, and he believed in hell. He wanted to go to heaven, but he did not know how. So he asked the Lord, and God gave Him the answer. “The just shall live by faith!”
Luther came to understand that the doctrine of justification by faith is the article upon which the church stands or falls. “This doctrine [of justification by faith] is the head, and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God, and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour….If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.”That is the importance of this doctrine.
Despite its importance, Luther suspected that the doctrine of justification by faith alone would be short lived. He was right for today, once again, the world is enamored with being saved by good works. In this one area of religion, Muslims unite with Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhist, Free Masons, and Secular Society to teach that salvation is based upon a person’s good works outweighing their bad deeds. So the doctrine of sola fide touches the very heart and soul of the gospel itself. John Calvin agreed with Luther. He said that the doctrine of justification by faith was the hinge upon which everything else turned.
In our generation, Dr. J. I. Packer has likened the doctrine of justification by faith alone to Atlas, in Greek mythology, whose task it was to carry the weight of the world upon his shoulders. The doctrine of Sola Fide holds up all other biblical doctrines.
Now the question the doctrine of justification seeks to answer is this: “How can an unjust and sinful person be found righteous in the sight of a God who is perfect?” The psalmist asked, “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Psa. 130:3).
God is just and holy. Justice and holiness demands that the penalty of sin be honored. The penalty for sin is death. “For the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23). Wages is what we earn. We deserve death, both physical and eternal.
However, while God is holy and just, He is also merciful and in His mercy God has found a way to uphold justice while showing grace to the guilty. God has found a way to justify sinners. Oh let the angels sing and let the hearts of mortals have hope.
“Christ receiveth sinful men,
even me with all my sin.”
But how is that possible?
The simple answer is given in Romans 1:17. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
But who are the just? The just are those who have been declared righteous by God. Some individuals are declared righteous in the sight of God the moment a person believes in heaven’s gracious provision for the forgiveness of sin, by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul writes that God is “the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26)
The gospel does not say that God unilaterally declares forgiveness to everyone in the world. That is called Universalism, and it is not a Biblical doctrine, however attractive the concept might be to the human heart. The Bible teaches that people will either go to heaven or be eternally separated from God. Judas went to his own place, the Bible says, and every person has their own place to go to in eternity. What is your place? Where is your ultimate destiny?
The doctrine of justification does teach that divine mercy is extended to individuals, but it is only given to “him which believeth in Jesus.” God is a forgiving God. He is also a holy and just God.
God does not look at sin through His fingers, for then He would not fully see the whole guilt of the person before him. Some sins would be obscured.
On Thursday, June 8, 2017, the world watched in fascination as James Comey, the former director of the FBI, testified before Congress. Many were astonished at what the he had to say. Four times he personally confessed to being a moral coward. He confessed to being weak and manipulated by a former Attorney General under a past administration to the point of lying about an important investigation.
When asked to do wrong, he went along to get along. He confessed to being a leaker of national secrets for political purposes. Up until Friday, the former FBI’s personal transgressions were obscured. He was seen as the most moral man in Washington. He was often called a “Boy Scout” by news media. But it was all a lie. He hurt other people. He leaked national secrets. He refused to tell the truth when it could have helped others, and the nation.
When God looks upon a person He is judging, they do not have to confess. The Lord already knows their every thought, and deed. He knows their heart. God does not wink at sin. God does not compromise His own character and justice. “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” (Jer. 17:10)
When God looks at you and me He sees everything about us. Nothing is hidden from him. As God looks at some individuals before the Bar of Divine Justice, something amazing takes place.
The angels who are watching and listening are astonished when they hear God say, “I declare you justified! You are free to go.”
The Bible says that God justifies sinners! He declares them righteous in the eyes of the law. He does that without compromising justice, or His own character. Now there is something very important here. No person can justify themselves before God. Nor can others justify a person. Not even the Church can justify a person.
This does not mean that people do not try to justify their actions. Adam and Eve tried to explain to God why they ate of the forbidden fruit. Following World War II, many of the leaders of Nazi Germany tried to justify their actions.
Herman Goering led the way during the Nuremberg Trials and gave a vigorous defense of why the Nazis plunged the world into war and murdered millions in death camps.
In more recent days, comedian Kathy Griffin held up a bloody and battered image of the severed head of the President of the United States. She justified her action in the name of humor.
Hollywood personality Jerry Seinfeld came to her defense to justify what she did. “I do not know what all the fuss is about,” he said.
And so it is that individuals try to justify the evil that is done. People want others to justify, to approve, to say they are right in what they have done. Ultimately, it is God, and God alone, who is the justifier. Only God can pronounce the final verdict.
One day, each one of us will stand to give an account for the things we have done and said. In that day, God will say to us, “Depart from me ye that are workers of iniquity.” Or, God will say,
“You are justified in my sight! Welcome into my heaven.”
The basis of our justification will not be our good works, but our faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. It is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; 6 Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; 7 That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)
Now, there is something else. The Reformers of the 16th century believed that justification was forensic. This is a term not commonly used in the Church. This term is often used in a criminal system. The term forensic has to do with an pronouncement, in the area of law, based upon evidence being presented in a logical manner.
Borrowing from the courts, theologians contend that God can legally pronounce a sinner righteous because they have fulfilled what God has required of them, which is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior.
When that happens, God is just in declaring that a person is legally righteous in His sight. The position of the Catholic Church is that a person becomes righteous in the sight of God, and on that basis they are justified.
The Reformers said, “No, a person can never become righteous in the sight of God, for every person is intrinsically unrighteous. Every person is sinful by choice and by nature. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” (Rom. 3:23).
If any person is to be justified in the sight of God, then God must find a way to justify them in order to declare them righteous. Forensic justification is God’s declaration of a person being just because God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the account of every person who has believed in Jesus Christ.
The good news of the gospel, the glory of the gospel, is that God pronounces people just, while they are still a sinner. It is that declaring someone just, who, in themselves is not just, that creates so much controversy, especially with the Catholic Church.
The Reformers were accused of creating a legal fiction by saying that God justifies the guilty.
“How can it be right to justify the ungodly?”
The Biblical answer reaches back across the ages to the time of Abraham, when God made certain promises to the patriarch. The Bible says that Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness. “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).
In matchless grace, God counted to Abraham a righteousness he did not have in himself. Abraham’s faith did not atone for his sins. His faith did not make him righteous. Rather, the reason God counted Abraham righteous, the reason why God counts anyone righteous, is because of the work of Christ at Calvary, whereby Christ atoned for the sins of those who are to be the heirs of salvation. The phrase, “justification by faith alone”, is theological shorthand for “justification by Christ alone.”
The fundamental issue is this: “On what basis does God declare a person righteous?” “Does God declare a person righteous on the basis of their own merit?” The answer is, “No.” “Does God declare a person righteous on the basis of the merit of Christ?” The answer is, “Yes.” The Reformers argued that the only ground for justification is Christ. “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
I commend to you the principle of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.