The Gospel 6: Justification by Faith
By: Deji Yesufu
Justification by faith was the doctrine that revolutionized my understanding of the gospel. In fact, I believe that it was while studying this doctrine in the book of Romans that I became a born-again Christian. R. T. Kendall, who had first introduced me to this doctrine in his book, “Worshipping God”, brought the concept under a chapter he titled “The Joy of Doing Nothing”. In that chapter he explained that while much of the book enunciated practical ways to worship God with all of our lives, the greatest worship we could offer God was one in which we did nothing. He explained that the Sovereign God can bring all of his grace to bear on our lives in such a way that we simply stand in awe, unable to even say “thank you”. He said the greatest works of God in our lives are those works of grace where we cannot repay God. We simply do nothing but enjoy God and end up enslaving our lives to him in response to the immense grace he has bestowed on us. Kendall showed me that while God had also done such things for Israel in the days when he delivered them from Egypt and passed them through the Red Sea, today God brings his mighty grace to bear in our lives through such doctrines as justification by faith.
Justification by Faith
What then is “justification by faith”? At this point we must turn to Paul who was the greatest teacher of the concept in the New Testament. When Paul opened his letter to the Romans, he began by showing his readers the futility of the Gentiles’ lives. He made it clear in the first chapter that the Gentiles did not have God in all their thoughts and that God had given them up to depraved thinking. In chapter two, Paul showed the Jews that despite the advantage that their religion offered, they had not fared better than the Gentiles. The Jews may have succeeded in circumcising their foreskins, but their hearts were not circumcised. He continued with this train of thoughts in Chapter three until he reached those damning words:
“What then? Are we Jews better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin…” (Romans 3:9)
Paul begins this great epistle with the concept of sin being all pervasive. He reiterated it in verse 23: “… all have sinned and come short of the glory of God…” What this implies is that there is nothing in the religion that man practices that can save him. We are all sinners and we are headed to an eternity without God and without his Christ. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s approbation. This is the concept that I have tried to establish in the fourth part of this series titled “Sin”.
Paul was also saying that the real challenge with religion and man’s effort to reach God through it was that no one could attain God’s standard. The story of the people of Israel in the Old Testament is a testament to the fact that man would always fail in his bid to please God. Because we live in a fallen body, we cannot please God. If we would get to heaven, we will need a righteousness other than our own. This righteousness must be God’s righteousness. In introducing the concept of the “righteousness of God”, Paul writes:
“For by the works of the law no human being would be justified in (God’s) sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” (Romans 3:20-21)
What then is this “righteousness of God”? Paul explains further:
“… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe… and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:22, 24)
Paul introduces to New Testament Christianity a doctrine that no other righteousness will satisfy God’s justice except the righteousness that is of God. And this righteousness becomes ours when we place faith in Jesus Christ – never through our efforts. He further explains that this righteousness is the product of our justification by grace – which in itself is a gift of God to men. What then is the biblical concept of justification?
Biblically, justification is a legal term. It is God saying in one fell swoop: “… you are right with me…” It is like a judge having a condemned criminal before him in a court of law. The courts have sat; the lawyers have argued their case. The criminal has obviously lost the case. The jury has passed the sentence of “death by hanging” and all that is left for the judge to do is give the final verdict. But on the final day, after reading out all the offences, the judge looks on the criminal and says “… though you are guilty, I have chosen to pardon you. You are free to go. DISCHARGED AND ACQUITED!” This is the same concept Paul is passing across with this doctrine of justification by faith. He says further:
“… and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his own blood to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he has passed over former sins…” (Romans 3:24-25)
God is the judge of the earth. Every man born of Adam stands condemned because of sin. But because Christ has obtained eternal redemption from sin for all humanity, those who have placed faith in Christ will obtain God’s righteousness as theirs. As judge of the whole earth, God would look on them and say: “… you are deserving of eternal hell. But I hereby acquit you of that judgement because of Christ Jesus my Son…” The greatest blessing of justification by faith is that it is not earned; we do not work to receive it. We simply accept it by faith as God’s gifts to sinful humanity. Paul shares the same thoughts here:
“…For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the law…” (Romans 3:28)
He then goes further in chapter four to tell the story of Abraham; he shows us how Abraham obtained righteousness simply by believing God (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3). Paul gives the analogy that if a man works, whatever is given to him is his wage. But if a man does not work and obtains righteousness by faith, what he has received is a gift. True righteousness is not worked for; the righteousness that will bring us to heaven will be God’s righteousness; the righteousness we obtain by faith as we believe on Jesus Christ. This is the joy of doing nothing. That we simply sat down and understood the doctrine of grace and received the gift of God without working for it. Unfortunately, an Arminian theology has restored the concept of works-righteousness to the Protestant churches but from the beginning it was not so.
Justification by faith was the doctrine that Martin Luther, the 16th century Roman Catholic monk, wielded to move the whole of Europe on the path of righteousness. Luther never could pacify his sensitive conscience with all the works-righteousness that Rome imposed on its subject. He studied scriptures and prayed until God opened his heart to understand the concept of a righteousness of God; the concept of being justified by faith apart from the law; the concept of simply receiving the gift of God’s righteousness without working for it. Luther entered into a joy that he did not work for and he changed the religion of Europe in the process. You and I can also enter into these joys as we allow the Holy Spirit to bring us to understand this concept more and more.
Somebody might ask: if the concept of justification by faith is as easy as this, why do many more people not understand it? I think the answer is in the words of Jesus when he said in prayers to God “…I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children, yes, for such was your gracious will…” (Matthew 11: 25-26). Those who would grasp the concept of justification by faith and via it come to living faith in Christ, are those whom God chooses to reveal these truth to. The natural inclination of all men is to work to earn something. Most times we feel guilty if we are just given something without working for it; our pride manifests itself in trying to balance whatever favors is shown to us. Some people even use “thank you” to balance out a favor. But God is not asking us for anything in return for his grace. He simply asks us to believe. God wants us to have the joy of doing nothing but enjoy his grace which he has bestowed immensely upon us through Jesus Christ. And those who will believe these truths are those whom the Father will reveal them to through his words. The best we can do is to teach them and commend them to your hearts. The best thing in this life is indeed free; it is the gift of eternal life through Christ Jesus that God bestows on sinners who do nothing to earn it but who only believe.
To further shed light on the concept of justification by faith, in the next blog I will enumerate a number of implications of this doctrine. Hopefully as I do that, you my readers, will understand these truths better and God will help you to rest in Jesus Christ as far as your eternal life is concerned. Amen.