Since the fall, God has not required of man for justification anything other than faith. At no time was salvation ever by works, not even under the Old Covenant. I’m not sure what the rule currently is on how many times you can repeat a phrase in a modern worship song, but I’d like to think that this if this series were a song, I’d have broken that rule twice over by now. Justification is by faith alone.
In fact, I’ve emphasized justification by faith alone so often that I considered not even writing this post. Yet although Paul knew that justification by faith had been written in all capital letters all throughout Scripture, he still decided to write about it even more. To write about justification by faith in greater detail is no grievance for me and it may prove helpful to the reader.
Justification by faith is an ocean of blessing. To partake, you need only get your feet wet. Countless Christians have been saved who could only barely articulate the idea that they are sinners and Christ died for them. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes. Many other Christians, and especially the Puritans, have explored the doctrine of justification in ways that require scuba gear. If you have the time, it’s deep enough to necessitate a well-made submarine.
As we put on our swimwear and prepare to do some light wading, we should remember not to despise those who’ve only wet their feet. We are all justified by the same Gospel. None of us are saved by our knowledge of justification by faith. We are justified by faith in Christ, not by our faith in justification by faith. We delve deeper as an aid to guard us from error and because, frankly, who wouldn’t want to go exploring in an ocean of blessing?
The Necessity of Justification
When used in the Bible, justification is a covenantal term. It means to declare righteous—and righteousness is an inherently covenantal term. A person is righteous when they have kept their end of the covenant. Justification, then, is the declaration that a person has kept and not violated the stipulations of a covenant.
God made a covenant of creation with man in the garden in which He promised life to Adam and his children, provided he obey God and not eat from the tree in the midst of the garden. When Adam ate from that tree, he broke the covenant and incurred the curse of the covenant (death) for himself and his family. Had he continued without eating from the tree, he would have been considered righteous. The Westminster Confession says that in this covenant of creation, “life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” (7.2)
All men, because of Adam’s sin, are born in a state of unrighteousness. Adam broke the first covenant by eating the forbidden fruit, and there is no amount of not eating fruit that we can do to remedy that. Our fallen nature means that we cannot keep God’s Law—but even if we could, we can’t fix something by simply not breaking it more. The verdict of unrighteous and the penalty of death hangs over every man’s head because of Adam’s sin and still more because of our own sin. We need, somehow, for our status within the covenant of creation to be righteous. We need to be justified.
If you’ve spent any time in Sunday school, you know that Jesus is the one that makes us righteous, but many evangelicals and even reformed types get a bit fuzzy when it comes to working out the details of how that takes place.
Union with Christ through Covenant
Since man was incapable of becoming righteous through the covenant of creation, God made a second covenant which is commonly called the covenant of grace (WCF 7.3). In this covenant, God grants salvation to man, and especially righteousness, by means of faith. That is, by God’s grace and through this covenant of grace, the elect are united to Christ by faith and granted righteousness in the covenant of creation. We know what the covenants are and we know what righteousness is, but we still need to define faith.
It’s important to define our terms to avoid misunderstanding when we say that we are justified by faith. Apart from a fuller understanding of the Gospel, someone might conclude from such a statement that there is an intrinsic quality to faith that magically erases our sins. As though we’ve offended God by our sin, but since He really likes that faith stuff, we can just give him a bottle of it and everything will be okay. In reality, faith is much bigger and much smaller than that.
When Eve ate from the forbidden tree, her sin was rooted in unbelief—a lack of faith. God had told her one thing, but her eyes told her something else. She brought these two witnesses to the courtroom in her mind and judged her eyes more reliable than God—she then proceeded to walk by sight and not by faith. The substance of what God requires in every covenant (even that of creation) is faith, which is why we are told that anything not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23) and without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Faith must be present in all of our obedience for it to be true obedience. In this sense, it’s much bigger than many of us realize.
In another sense, faith is much smaller than we realize. If faith is like the root of obedience, but obedience can’t justify us, how can faith save or justify us? This is important to understand. Our faith, even when combined with obedience, cannot justify us. The object of our faith is what justifies us, with our faith functioning as the instrument that receives that object. Faith is not inherently noble or justifying. Likewise, there is nothing inherently noble or hunger abating about the act of grabbing bread; although bread does satisfy hunger, and grabbing it is a rather important step along the way to eating it.
Faith is a way of expressing the verb “believe.” As a verb, “believe” is the sort of word that needs a direct object. You must believe something. Again, reaching out and grabbing is an exercise in futility unless you are actually grabbing something. For the Christian, we believe the Word of God—the Scriptures. Funny enough, though, Jesus is also called the Word (John 1:1) and so as we believe the Scriptures we find that we are believing Christ. We are saved and justified by Christ through our faith in Him and in what the Scriptures say about Him. Through faith, we are united to Christ and thereby saved.
Not only should we understand that faith is nothing glamorous in itself; we must also remember that faith itself is a gift (Ephesians 2:8–9; Philippians 1:29). We are given the picture of people reaching out with the arm of faith to receive Christ (Colossians 2:6), and we are simultaneously presented with the picture of God the Father drawing all of the elect to Christ (John 6:44). Faith is a gift and its act of receiving Christ is animated by God through the Holy Spirit (John 3:5).
The Saving Work of Christ
So far we’ve noted that we are condemned according to the covenant of creation and that God had provided a second covenant in which believers may be united to Christ by faith. We also noted that faith isn’t some magical or meritorious voodoo but is simply a hand that reaches out for grace to Jesus. Now we need to cover the work that Christ does that makes our union with Him save and justify us.
Under the covenant of grace, believers are not merely united to Christ. He is also united to us. Through incarnation and covenant, Christ became a man and our covenantal representative before God. This means that He became responsible to obey God—as Adam had been in the garden. He also became responsible for any and all sins of those under His covenantal headship, that is the Church. He is responsible to obey and He is responsible for our disobedience.
His work in justifying us is likewise twofold. First He obeyed God perfectly throughout His entire life. He never once sinned and thus never incurred the death penalty for Himself. He was obedient, and because of that He was righteous and was promised life according to the covenant of creation.
The next thing that Jesus did was satisfy the curse of the covenant with Adam. If, after Eve had eaten the fruit in the garden, Adam had volunteered to take Eve’s punishment (instead of eating the fruit as well), that might serve as a decent analogy for what Christ did. He stood in the place of His bride, the Church, as her covenantal head and took her punishment.
This is something more than just substitution. When the recipe calls for whole milk but you substitute 2%, no one would say that the whole milk was covenantally, symbolically, or spiritually present with the 2% milk in the final product. This, however, is how the Bible speaks of the Christ and the Church. When Christ took our place, Scripture says that we died with Christ (Romans 6:4; Colossians 3:3). The believer, then, was crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).
The resurrection becomes infinitely important when we consider this, because it is the only way that we are justified. We died with Christ and if Christ had only died, we’d simply be dead with Him and that would be the end of it—something a bit reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. But Christ was raised as an act of justification and vindication because of His obedience. In this sense, He is said to have been raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).
I find that God is better at explaining things then I am and His metaphors always prove clearer than my milky ones. When God had determined to flood the entire earth because of the unrighteousness of mankind, there was only one safe place to be in the whole world: Noah’s ark.
The ark functions as a type of Christ because although it endured the full blow of God’s justice in the form of the flood, it was ultimately preserved along with all those in it. So also Christ died to take the justice of God on the Cross and we died in Him. As the ark rose above the waves, so also Christ rose from the dead with all in Him. The whole of mankind is going to be judged and the only place to be safe is in Jesus as He endures the judgment and is subsequently raised.
Moreover, we are told in the New Testament that the ark corresponds to baptism (1 Peter 3:20–21). “We are buried with Christ by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).
Noah’s ark and baptism show us union with Christ, which is the basis for our justification. Many other things besides justification are provided for us through union with Christ, including adoption, sanctification, glorification, and more. Being united to Christ, the blessed One, is the source of all blessing for the believer. For us to be justified, our sin must be dealt with and we must be seen as having obeyed God. Union to Christ through faith is the only way for this to happen, which is why justification is by faith alone.