This year (2017) is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation when Martin Luther and the other reformers set about reforming the church according to God’s word. To mark the beginning of the Reformation, I thought I might write on some of the great doctrines of the Reformation in my letters this year, beginning with the doctrine of justification.
Justification is about how sinners like us can be pardoned by God for what we have done wrong and how we can be accepted by God as righteous in his sight. Whoever is justified receives the hope of everlasting life.
Of course, like many Christian doctrines, different people hold different views on justification and how it works. The following four views (and there are more) differ in the place they give to faith and good works in how we’re justified before God. Furthermore, the place people give to faith and good works also influences what they believe about the Lord Jesus and his death on the cross.
View 1 is as follows: In order to be justified or accepted by God, God requires from us a life of good works. By doing good and by avoiding sin as much as possible, we can make ourselves acceptable to God. Therefore faith is unnecessary.
According to this view, the Lord’s death on the cross provided us with an example of what it means to love and obey God. If we follow his example of selfless obedience, then God will accept us. If this view were correct, then all those who reach eternal life would be able to claim that the reason they have eternal life is not because of Christ and his work for us, but because of me and my work.
View 2 is as follows: In order to be justified or accepted by God, God requires from us faith and good works. If sinners trust in the Lord Jesus and perform good works, then God will one day justify them or accept them.
According to this view, the Lord’s death on the cross was necessary for our justification, but it was not enough. The Lord’s death was necessary because there was no other way for us to be made right with God than by the death of Christ. However the Lord’s death was not enough to make us right with God. And so we have to add our own good works to his death in order to be finally justified. If this view were correct, then all those who reach eternal life would be able to claim that the reason they have eternal life is partly because of Christ and his work for us and partly because of me and my work.
There are two further views: View 3 and View 4. These two are similar up to a point: In order to be justified or accepted by God, God requires from us faith in Christ. God accepts us the moment we trust in the Lord Jesus because, by faith alone, we share in the righteousness (perfect obedience) of Jesus Christ.
According to Views 3 and 4, the Lord’s death on the cross was necessary because there was no other way for us to be made right with God than by the death of Christ. Furthermore, the Lord’s death was enough, because nothing further is necessary since his death covers over all of our sins completely. Once sinners reach eternal life, they will spend all of eternity praising Jesus Christ for what he has done to bring us to God.
Up to this point, Views 3 and 4 are the same. But it’s here that they diverge. View 3 says that good works have no place either before or after God accepts us. View 4 says that while we are justified, or accepted, by faith alone, nevertheless true faith is never alone and is always accompanied by good works.
View 4 is the view of the Presbyterian Church which teaches: ‘Justification is an act of God’s free grace in which he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ alone, which is credited to us and received by faith alone‘ (Shorter Catechism Q33, my italics). ‘Good works done in obedience to God’s commandments are the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith’ (Westminster Confession 16:2, my italics).
We hold to the fourth view because we believe it is the biblical view. For instance, the following two verses demonstrate that we are justified by faith and not by works: ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law’ (Romans 3:28, my italics). ‘To him [Jesus Christ] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name’ (Acts 10:43, my italics).
The following verse, however, teaches that a faith which is not accompanied by works is useless: ‘So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’ (James 2:17).
The Apostle Paul puts the two together in Ephesians 2: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (my italics). In other words, believers are saved (justified) by faith alone and not as a result of our works. However, believers have been created by God to do the good works which God has prepared for us.
View 1 is faulty because it has no place for faith at all. View 2 is faulty because it says that we must add works to our faith in order to be justified. View 3 is faulty because it does not understand that good deeds flow from a true faith. View 4 teaches that we are justified and pardoned by God through faith alone, but good works will then follow inevitably.
Why is it important that we know these things? Firstly, so that we might truly praise God for Christ whose death was both necessary and sufficient to cover over all our sins.
Secondly, so that we might understand the graciousness of God who requires nothing from us for our justification except that we trust in his Son. He does not expect us to clean up our lives before he’ll accept us. God justifies the ungodly, not the godly!
Thirdly, so that we might be awakened if our life lacks good works which are one of the signs that we belong to God. Good works, according to our Confession (16:1), are those which God has commanded in his holy word. In other words, the things which are summarised in the Ten Commandments. Do you find yourself wanting to keep God’s commandments more and more? Do you confess and seek his forgiveness when you find yourself disobeying him? If not, then you need to consider the possibility that you may never have trusted in Christ or been justified by God.
Fourthly, so that we might be comforted when we see good works in our lives which are the inevitable result of a true faith. Just as a farmer marks his sheep to show that they belong to him, so God marks his people with good works to show that we are his.