Is Justification by Faith Alone?

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Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

Last edited on 21/Apr/2021

The Bible’s Answer

The Bible’s answer to this question is yes, justification is by faith alone (Romans 3:28). In the Bible, the word “justify” refers to a verdict or a legal act whereby a person is declared righteous or forgiven by God. When we are justified we are saved from God’s righteous judgement, have peace with him, and eternal life (Romans 5:1–2).

To be justified by faith alone simply means that there is nothing that we can do to contribute to our salvation, because Jesus has already done it all for us by his perfect obedience and payment for sins on the cross (Galatians 2:21). Faith, which is heartfelt trust, is simply that which accepts and freely receives Jesus’ righteousness (Philippians 3:9), and is itself a gift that the Holy Spirit creates in our hearts (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Bible Passages Teaching Justification by Faith Alone

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28, ESVUK)

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, … (Romans 4:2–5)

… yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” … Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith. (Galatians 3:8, 11)

When we receive the merits of Jesus by faith, we receive them with empty hands. We have nothing to bring to him that he hasn’t already done for us. While our justification does result in a changed life where we will produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit, these Bible passages make it clear that these works are never to be done in order to merit justification; instead, we do them after we have been justified.

No one will be justified by works of the law, which includes all the moral commandments of the Old Testament, because the only way that would be possible is if we were able to uphold it perfectly (Matthew 5:48), but no one has, because we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8–10) and deserve eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41, 46; John 3:36). Since Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law on our behalf, and atoned for our sins through his death on the cross, all we can do is receive his merits freely by faith alone, with the exclusion of all works on our part.

Faith As God’s Gift

However, trusting in Jesus isn’t something that we add to his finished works, since the Bible confirms that faith is the gift of God:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)

According to this passage, faith is a gift of God’s grace alone, not our own doing. Grace refers to God’s unmerited favour. God didn’t choose to save us because of anything good in us, or because of anything good we did, but simply because of “the great love with which he loved us” (Ephesians 2:4), so that “he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). God gave us the gift of faith to freely receive Christ’s righteousness, so that we could always experience his love and kindness.

Therefore, it isn’t something that we must do in addition to Jesus’ works. We do not choose to accept Christ as the Lord of our lives by our own free will, because before God justifies and spiritually regenerates us we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1–3), hostile to him, and incapable of pleasing him (Romans 8:7–8). God must first give us a spiritual rebirth through the Holy Spirit, and as a result of that, we will believe. Jesus said that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). He also said: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Justification As God’s Gift

Since justification is completely a work of God, the Bible calls it a gift:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21–25)

Gifts, of course, are not things that we earn, but things that are freely given to us solely because of the kindness of the giver. It would be absurd to call a pay slip from work a gift, for example, since that is something that an employer gives to us based upon our merits. In the same way, justification would not be a gift from God if we had to do even one thing to earn or keep it, since it would be given not based upon God’s kindness alone, but also our merits. True gifts do not have conditions, and God’s gift of justification is no exception. We are justified by his grace alone, because God has no reason to justify us other than the fact that he loves us (John 3:16; Romans 5:6–8), and we receive his benefits freely through faith alone.

Justified Because of Christ’s Perfect Obedience

The Bible makes it clear that to be justified means that we are covered with Christ’s righteousness. The apostle Paul writes:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— … (Philippians 3:8–9)

No one is ever justified by obeying the law or by trying to please God. Neither does anyone have a righteousness of their own that they can depend on for the day of judgement. Our righteousness comes from God himself, and we receive it by simply trusting in this promise. The Bible says “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). The righteousness that we are clothed with when we believe in Christ for salvation is his own righteousness; he alone fully satisfied the legal demands of God’s law on our behalf so that in him we could meet God’s perfect standards (Matthew 5:17; Hebrews 4:15). The sole basis of our justification is Christ’s perfect righteousness, not our own; this is why we receive it by faith to the exclusion of all our works. God owes us nothing.

Justified Because of Christ’s Perfect Payment for Sins

But the Bible also teaches that to be justified means that Christ has made perfect payment for our sins on the cross. The apostle Paul again writes:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:9)

No one who believes in Christ will have to pay the eternal punishment for sinning against God. Neither does anyone have to live a perfect life after they first believe to maintain their justification. While we receive the righteousness of Christ by faith alone, Jesus received our unrighteousness on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus bore the full weight of the world’s sins in his body on the cross to pay the punishment we deserved as our substitute (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). The Bible says “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). We incurred an unpayable sin debt by sinning against an infinite God, but Jesus, who is God the Son, paid that debt fully through his death, and it is permanently cancelled when we trust in him (Colossians 2:13–14).

No payment that we offer God can ever satisfy his justice; only Christ’s precious blood can, and this is why we have no choice but to accept his payment by faith and nothing else. Our confidence in Jesus rests in the fact that on the third day after his death, God rose him again from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:3–4), and after his ascension into heaven, seated him at his right hand, far above all rule, authority, power, and dominion (Ephesians 1:20–21). Christ’s bodily resurrection is just as essential to believe in as his perfect obedience and substitutionary death on the cross for our justification:

… because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Romans 10:9–10)

Justification by Faith Alone Is Essential for Salvation

Our justification depends on the fact that Jesus both lived the perfect life we failed to live, and died for our sins as our substitute. Both were absolutely essential aspects of Jesus’ mission for him to truly save us, for if Christ had not been perfectly obedient, the legal demands of God’s law would remain unfulfilled, and if he had not died for our sins on the cross, justice would not have been satisfied. Since Jesus has done everything for our salvation, all we can do is receive his merits with the trust that the Holy Spirit creates in our hearts (1 Corinthians 2:10–12). Therefore, faith is the sole means by which we receive the righteousness of Christ. If justification were not by faith alone and required anything else, then grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6), and Christ’s death on the cross was done in vain (Galatians 2:21). The Bible gravely warns:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)

If in our pride we decide that justification by faith alone is too good to be true, and try and merit God’s grace by our faith and works, God will no longer judge us based upon Christ’s merits, which is the way of grace, but upon our own instead, which is the way of the law. Can you be perfect? Can you atone for your own sins? Would you really prefer to stake your salvation on your own merits rather than Christ’s? God’s gift of eternal life is available to everyone today for free (Romans 6:23), and it was bought specifically for you at the terrible cost of his own life. So receive it today by putting your faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour.

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