Last edited on 23/Jan/2021
The doctrine of justification is one of the most important doctrines in the whole Bible because it concerns the state of salvation that a person is in. Salvation is the deliverance of a sinner from the wrath of God. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, said it is the doctrine by which the church stands and falls.3 When the Bible uses the word justify, it means “to declare righteous or free”; it is a verdict, a legal act whereby a person is declared righteous or forgiven by God.1
How a Person Is Justified
According to the Bible, a person is justified by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone. Our justification is not dependent upon our own strength, merits, obedience, or works at all2, but is solely dependent on Christ’s works on our behalf (Romans 11:6; Ephesians 2:8–9).4 We are freely justified when we believe we are received into God’s favour, and that because of Jesus’ death on the cross we are forgiven of our sins; such a faith is counted as righteousness in God’s sight (Romans 3:21–26).2
Underlying the whole doctrine of justification is the fact that humans are born with a sinful nature that is naturally contrary to God’s laws and will, which we violate by our thoughts, words, and deeds, and this makes us transgressors against him (Romans 3:10–12, 23; Romans 8:7–8). Therefore, we deserve God’s punishment and wrath.6 But in order to have a deeper understanding of justification, the statements: grace alone, faith alone, and Christ alone need to be expounded upon.
Grace does not refer to a spiritual substance that we receive from God; grace refers to God’s graciousness, which is what his true nature looks like (Psalm 86:15; 1 John 4:8, 16).4 It is God’s unconditional, unlimited love and mercy given to rebellious people who do not deserve it. Jesus himself performed the greatest act of love by laying down his life for all people (John 15:12–13; Romans 5:6–8). We are justified by grace alone, because if it weren’t for God’s graciousness, we would all receive our due punishment for our sins, eternal condemnation (John 3:16–18, 36).
Faith does not refer to faithful obedience, but it just refers to simple trust in the gospel: the good news that Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1–4). Faith is not a decision we come to by our own free will, nor is it a work we must do before we are justified, but it is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8–9).5 The forgiveness of sins is promised for Christ’s sake, because of his perfect life and atoning death upon the cross.6 We are justified by faith alone, because if we were justified by any other means, all of which involve works, the promise would neither rest upon grace nor be guaranteed, which would contradict the certain nature of promises (Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:18–22).6
Jesus Lived the Perfect Life We Failed to Live on Our Behalf
On account of Christ alone can also be re-worded as because of Christ alone. All people are guilty of having sinned (Romans 3:23), that is, breaking God’s law (1 John 3:4). Christ is God in flesh (John 1:1, 14), the only person who was and is without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Sin came into the world through Adam’s disobedience, and consequently this led to condemnation and death for all, and for all people being born with a sinful nature (Romans 5:12–14, 18-19).
However, although sin, death, and condemnation came through Adam’s disobedience, righteousness, life, and justification came through Jesus Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:15–21). Jesus lived the perfect, righteous, and holy life in perfect obedience to God the Father’s law that we failed to do (Matthew 5:17–20; Galatians 4:4–5), so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us (Romans 8:1–4). His merits alone have earned us justification. However, this still leaves the guilt of our sin, and our punishment.
Jesus Paid Our Sin Punishment in Full
Through Jesus’ act of obedience, his righteousness is accounted—or credited—to us (Romans 5:17–19), but in exchange, our sins and iniquity are accounted—or credited—to Jesus (Isaiah 53:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus bore all our sins in his body on the cross (Isaiah 53:4–6; Isaiah 53:10–12; 1 Peter 2:24), and by doing this he paid the full punishment of our sins that we deserved, as our substitute (Colossians 2:13–14).
Jesus was raised from the dead by God the Father which vindicated him, was done for our justification (Romans 4:22–25) and to guarantee our own resurrections to life eternal (1 Corinthians 15:20–23; 1 Corinthians 15:42–48). In this way, God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, fulfilled both justice by upholding the law perfectly for us, and love for sparing us the punishment of our wrongdoings, and taking it upon himself.
God Gives Us Jesus’ Righteousness
God gives us the righteousness of Christ in his means of grace: the audible Word, the gospel (Romans 10:13–17; Colossians 1:3–8; Ephesians 1:13–14), and the visible Word, the sacraments (Matthew 26:26–28; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 1 Corinthians 11:23–27; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3–5; Galatians 3:27), which we receive through faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. Everyone who receives the promise of justification in the gospel and the sacraments through faith alone is credited with the righteousness of Christ, and has the guilt of their sin removed permanently (Ephesians 5:25–27; 1 Peter 1:18–19; 1 John 1:7–9).
Justification is on account of Christ alone, because if Jesus, acting as our substitute, did not fulfil God’s law for us, or pay our full sin penalty by his death on the cross, then we would still be dead in our sins, awaiting God’s punishment on the day of judgement (Matthew 25:31–34, 41, 46; Ephesians 2:1–3).
Christians Are Both Saints and Sinners
It is important to emphasise that in justification God does not make us righteous, in the sense that we become sinless from that point onwards (which would contradict 1 John 1:8); instead he declares us righteous.3,5 Justification is forensic in nature (relating to courts of law), while sanctification is participationist in nature (relating to our actions in the Holy Spirit).3 Justification is the cause of sanctification, and the two should not be confused. The centre of the doctrine of justification is what God does for us in Christ for our salvation (2 Corinthians 5:18–19).3
The doctrine of sanctification concerns a Christian’s life of holy living. Following this, then, our good works naturally flow from our justification, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16–17), who makes our works pleasing to God (Romans 8:5–11), and sets us free from the burden of the law (Galatians 5:16–26). When James says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), he is talking about a dead faith (James 2:14–17), in other words, a pretend faith that is not real or genuine, one equivalent to a demon’s faith (James 2:18–20). On the other hand, a real faith in Jesus results in a transformed life (2 Corinthians 5:17) where good works follow (John 15:4–6).5
The Holy Spirit in Justification
The Holy Spirit is actively involved in our justification, because it is he who convicts the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgement (John 16:7–10), who bears witness about Jesus (John 15:26), and who teaches us all things (John 14:26). He also operates through the Word (Acts 10:44–48; 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5) and sacraments (Acts 2:38; Acts 19:1–6; 1 Corinthians 12:13) to create faith in our hearts. The Holy Spirit is also actively involved in sanctification (2 Thessalonians 2:13), because he transforms Christians into the image and likeness of Christ throughout their lives (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:16–18).
Assurance of Salvation
The moment of justification is a perfect, complete event, whereby we have the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins (Hebrews 10:19–25). Our justification can be lost if we abandon the faith, but it can be renewed any time, not by looking inwardly at our own faith which may be weak at times, but by looking outwardly at the promise of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus, given by God in the gospel and sacraments, and just trusting this.
Bible Passages Related to Justification for Study
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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21–26)
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (Romans 4:16)
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18–21)
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 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 2:15–16)
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)
Book of Concord Quotes Related to Justification
Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4. (The Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession, Chief Articles of Faith, Article IV.1-3) 2
15] For since Christ is not man alone, but God and man in one undivided person, He was as little subject to the Law, because He is the Lord of the Law, as He had to suffer and die as far as His person is concerned. For this reason, then, His obedience, not only in suffering and dying, but also in this, that He in our stead was voluntarily made under the Law, and fulfilled it by this obedience, is imputed to us for righteousness, so that, on account of this complete obedience, which He rendered His heavenly Father for us, by doing and suffering, in living and dying, God forgives our sins, regards us as godly and righteous, and eternally saves us. 16] This righteousness is offered us by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel and in the Sacraments, and is applied, appropriated, and received through faith, whence believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, the grace of God, sonship, and heirship of eternal life. (The Book of Concord, The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, III. The Righteousness of Faith, Paragraphs 15-16) 5
Accordingly, the word justify here means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed by God to faith, Phil. 3:9. (The Book of Concord, The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, III. The Righteousness of Faith, Paragraph 17) 3,5
26] Therefore true, saving faith is not in those who are without contrition and sorrow, and have a wicked purpose to remain and persevere in sins; but true contrition precedes, and genuine faith is in or with true repentance [justifying faith is in those who repent truly, not feignedly]. 27] Love is also a fruit which surely and necessarily follows true faith. For the fact that one does not love is a sure indication that he is not justified, but is still in death, or has lost the righteousness of faith again, as John says, 1 John 3:14. But when Paul says, Rom. 3:28: We are justified by faith without works, he indicates thereby that neither the contrition that precedes, nor the works that follow, belong in the article or transaction of justification by faith. For good works do not precede justification, but follow it, and the person must first be justified before he can do good works. (The Book of Concord, The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, III. The Righteousness of Faith, Paragraphs 26-27) 5
31] Moreover, neither contrition nor love or any other virtue, but faith alone is the sole means and instrument by which and through which we can receive and accept the grace of God, the merit of Christ, and the forgiveness of sins, which are offered us in the promise of the Gospel. (The Book of Concord, The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, III. The Righteousness of Faith, Paragraph 31) 5
The Book of Concord contains the confessions and teachings of the Lutheran Church. It is not the Word of God, but is considered to be a correct and faithful summary of the Bible’s teachings.
1. 2009, The Lutheran Study Bible, The Pauline Epistles: Romans Through Philemon, Key Terms and Phrases in Paul’s Epistles, p. 1903
2. The Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession, Chief Articles of Faith, Article IV, 1-3, <http://www.bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php#article4.1>
3. Cooper, J 2015, Sola Fide: Justification by Faith, Concordia Lutheran Nashville, accessed on 21 July 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h17TiHlxcqo>
4. Hiller, B 2011, Lutheranism 101 ~ Week 6 ~ Justification, Faith Lutheran Church, accessed on 21 Jul 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chXPRCSCWb8>
5. The Book of Concord, The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, III. The Righteousness of Faith, Paragraphs 15-16, 17, 26-27, 31, accessed on 21 July 2017, <http://www.bookofconcord.org/sd-righteousness.php#para17>
6. Lueker, E L, Poellot, L, Jackson, P (eds) 2000, Justification, Christian Cyclopedia, accessed on 22 July 2017, <http://cyclopedia.lcms.org/display.asp?t1=j&word=JUSTIFICATION>
7. Preus, K 2010, Justification: Lutheran and Roman Catholic, Steadfast Lutherans, accessed on 23 July 2017, <http://steadfastlutherans.org/2010/07/justification-lutheran-and-roman-catholic/>
What is justification? What does it mean to be justified?, Got Questions?.org, accessed on 23 July 2017, <https://www.gotquestions.org/justification.html>
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.