Over the course of the year I’m working through the five solas of the Reformation when I have opportunities to preach. The five solas of the Protestant Reformation were five foundational theological principles that drove the Reformation. They are sola Scriptura, Fide, Gratia, Cristus, and Gloria (Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, and God’s Glory Alone). A few Sundays ago I preached on salvation by faith alone from Galatians 2:11-21. Preparing for this sermon I had time to reflect on this magnificent truth.
What does someone have to do to be right with God? How can unrighteous guilty sinners be made right before a perfect and holy God? Every religion tries to answer this question. And every person with a sensitive conscience desires an answer as well. Every person knows they fall short of their own standards of right and wrong and have some sense of the righteousness of God, even if it suppressed (Rom 1:18-21; 2:14-15).
Justification has been recognized by many as being central to the Gospel message, having to do with how sinners are declared righteous before a holy God. The Reformers defined justification from the Bible as God’s declaration of “righteous” or “not guilty” for those who have faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for sins (Rom 3:21-26; Gal 2:16). The righteousness from Christ’s sacrifice is imputed to the believer’s account and while his or her personal sins are attributed to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Justification in regard to our salvation means we are declared righteous by God because Jesus has paid the penalty for our sins according to God’s holy and righteous standards (see Romans 3-4; Galatians 2:16).
The biblical teaching on justification explains the way in which God makes it possible for sinners to be viewed as righteous in His eyes, and this is solely on the basis of faith in Christ’s atoning work. This understanding of justification was largely lost and confused through the Middle Ages because sacraments were added by the Roman Catholic Church, viewed as being necessary to secure justification. Therefore, justification was attained by works, varied by degrees, and could be lost in the Roman Catholic system.
But the Reformers rediscovered and clarified “justification” to mean “forensic justification,” or justification in the legal sense of a judicial declaration of “not guilty” or “righteous,” as in a courtroom judgment. Justification in this sense is understood most clearly as though we are in a court of law. We know we are sinners, we know we stand guilty, we need to be saved, and we need to pay the just penalty our sin deserves and requires before a just and holy God. Jesus paid the price for those sins, we accept it and personally trust in Him, then God justly declares we are “not guilty” in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ righteousness belongs to us and we stand righteous before God. This declaration of righteousness is done by God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ who died for sins and satisfied God’s righteous standards (Rom 3:21-26; 4:1-5:1; Gal 2:16-3:14).
Justification means salvation from the guilt and penalty of sin and is an instantaneous act of God that happens for the believer upon conversion. The guilty sinner’s record is cleared with his sins being transferred to Christ’s sacrifice and he stands guiltless before God the righteous Judge. God’s judgment of the believer changes from condemnation, being declared guilty, to justification, being declared just, as the righteousness of Christ is imputed or transferred to the believer’s account, and the sin which merits condemnation is transferred to the sacrifice of Christ (Gen 15:6; Rom 3:21-26; 4:22-5:1; Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 9:26-28).
Faith is the sole basis for justification or the declaration of righteousness by God (Jn 6:47; Rom 1:17; 3:20; Gal 2:16). Faith simply defined is belief, personal trust, reliance, or dependence in Jesus Christ and His atoning work in His life, death, and resurrection (Acts 16:31; 20:21; Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 15:3-4). Faith is not counted as a work or something that gains merit but is the instrument by which righteousness is imputed (Rom 4:3-5, 22-25). Imputation means crediting or transferring, which is the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to a sinner’s account as his sins are reckoned to Christ’s sacrifice (Rom 4:22-5:1; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13).
Justification does not come by doing meritorious works that earn salvation. Salvation is based on faith in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sins (Rom 3:21-26; Heb 9:26-28). It is made extremely clear that salvation is based on grace, or unmerited favor, freely given by God like a gift, not something that can be boasted about or earned by working (Rom 4:2-5; 6:23; 11:6; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). The relationship between faith and works is that true faith leads to works of righteousness done out of thanksgiving and love for God; they do not in any way earn salvation, but genuine faith produces or results in good works (Jas 2:14-26).
In sum, the righteousness demanded by God’s perfect standard is fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice, and this is graciously applied to a sinner by faith in order to be saved from sins. As you can see, justification is truly at the heart of the Gospel message. The apostle Paul did not just mention justification in passing but has it as central to his overall Gospel presentation in both Romans and Galatians (Rom 1:18-5:21; Gal 1:6-3:26). Justification is established as an essential doctrine because the apostle Paul himself argued that if justification was misunderstood or discarded, then truly a different Gospel that cannot save is being presented (Gal 1:8; 2:16, 21).
Lastly, understanding justification or salvation by faith alone has a tremendous impact on the believer’s everyday life. Too many Christians are still on the treadmill of works, thinking salvation or God’s love is somehow dependent on living perfect lives and heaping up good works. But this is exhausting and impossible. Truly understanding salvation by faith alone means Christians are confident, peaceful, hopeful, thankful, and even joyful in their salvation (Rom 5:1-2). We are at rest in Christ alone and His sacrifice, secure in God’s love, enabled by the Holy Spirit to persevere and live for God by faith. Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Amen! This is truly good news worth sharing!
Pastor Spencer Carpenter