Various Christian groups develop the idea of “justification through faith” in various ways. Some may find that justification through faith comes through faith and the taking of sacraments while others see the act as simply placing one’s trust in the crucified Savior without the necessity of sacraments. Nonetheless, the cornerstone of the belief is that one is saved by a placing a trust in Christ and the atoning work accomplished on the cross. This article will seek to answer how justification through faith is defined, why the doctrine should be believed, and why it is considered essential.
What is the doctrine?
John Miley defines “justification” as, “There is one fact of the divine forgiveness which is closely kindred to a forensic justification: the result of forgiveness is a justified state. With respect to the guilt of all past sins, the forgiveness sets the sinner right with the law and with God. That is, by the divine act of forgiveness he is made as completely free from guilt and condemnation, or from amenability to punishment for past sins, as he could be by the most formal judgment of innocence. With this result of forgiveness it may properly be called a justification” (Miley 1893, 311-312).” Millard Erickson states that “justification” is “God’s declarative act by which, on the basis of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death, he pronounces believers to have fulfilled all of the requirements of the law that pertain to them” (Erickson 1998, 969).
Therefore, the doctrine stresses that the atoning work performed on the cross is applied to a person’s life by faith. If one were to think of buying a Christmas gift for a friend, the purchase of the gift would be comparable to the work performed on the cross whereas the delivery of the gift to the friend would be seen as the act of justification.
Why should the doctrine be believed?
Unlike some of the other doctrines, this doctrine must be accepted upon the statements of Jesus and the early church. This doctrine comes from first establishing other doctrines like the existence of God, the person and work of Christ, and the fallenness of humanity. A person who is shown to be trustworthy can be believed more so than one who is not. Jesus consistently held to an upright moral character. Therefore what Jesus says about the work can be trusted. If Jesus is in fact the Son of God, then one can know that what Jesus says about the Father is also true. So, what does Jesus say about the work of justification?
Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-16, NASB). Jesus also stated, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NLT). Notice that the application comes from one who “believes in Him.” The word “believe” is the Greek term “pisteuo” which represents a trust that one has in someone or something.
Since we have already shown that the historicity of Jesus is a certainty and the fact that Jesus was crucified was a certainty. These two points converge as a trust upon a work done by a person in history. So as many evangelists have stated, “There must be a cross before there is a crown.” A person must deal with the implications of the cross. This leads us to the question, “why is the doctrine essential?”
Why is the doctrine essential?
The doctrine of justification through faith is found to be essential when examining the teachings of the early Christians. Paul states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV).
Perhaps the clearest example given of the necessity of “justification through faith” comes from Paul’s writing in the book of Romans. Paul writes, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:22-26, NIV).
The jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31, NIV).
The apostle John wrote, “And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23, NLT). It was not even questioned as to whether one should trust in the person and work of Christ for salvation. It was, in fact, commanded.
Therefore, the application of the atonement to a person’s life, in what we call “justification through faith,” is essential for one to have salvation. It is for this reason that the doctrine of “justification through faith” is considered an essential doctrine.
Still believing in the justification that Christ brings,
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Miley, John. Systematic Theology, Volume 2. New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1893.
Scripture noted as (NASB) comes from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
Scripture noted as (NIV) comes from The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
Scripture noted as (NLT) comes from the New Living Translation, 3rd ed. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007.