Justification by faith alone, according to Gerhard Forde, is “the article by which the church stands or falls.”1 He insists that “where the church no longer speaks this word, it has lost its reason for being.”2 That is a powerful claim.
The famous cry of the Reformers was by faith alone (sola fide in Latin). The Reformers were combating the prevailing view of the gospel in their day, which was that people are justified by faith plus works, not by faith alone.
Unfortunately, many Christians today are uncertain of the precise meaning of basic theological terms such as justification, sanctification, and propititiation. It might be good, then, to begin with a definition of forensic justification. Kenneth Allen writes:
What does it mean to be justified? It means to be declared righteous; to be accounted righteous. It is not a work done within the sinner, but a work done on behalf of the sinner. It is a legal term (or more precisely, in relation to salvation, a legal fact) by which the believing sinner is declared righteous before God while still being himself unrighteous.3
It is comments like this which led Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Plevnik to suggest that “Protestants are still allergic” to “the anthropological aspect of justification, dealing with the person’s cooperation with grace…insisting usually on sola gratia [by grace alone].”4 While from a Catholic perspective that may seem true of all Protestants, it is sadly far from true today.
The Reformation didn’t eliminate Roman Catholicism, and it didn’t insure that Catholic thinking on justification wouldn’t invade Protestantism. Many who are called Protestants hold an essentially Roman Catholic view of justification.
In January of this year I debated a Protestant minister on the issue of justification by faith alone. My opponent argued that justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. He argued that salvation was by faith plus works. His argument was based in part on the fact that the only time in Scripture that the word alone is put in conjunction with faith is in Jas 2:24, and there it specifically says that justification is “by works, and not by faith alone” (NASB). That Protestant minister was in no way “allergic” to “the anthropological aspect of justification, dealing with the person’s cooperation with grace.”
Similarly, in the book What Is Christianity? Protestant pastor Walter Lowrie argued that justification is by faith, but that it is not by faith alone.5 One of his principle arguments is this:
St. Paul never said “faith alone,” and the contention that he meant this is not plausible in view of the fact that, having many opportunities of saying it, he didn’t.6
In this article we will consider Protestant challenges to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We will consider this question under the following three headings:
1) An Evaluation of the Argument from Silence, 2) An Evaluation of Major Passages Cited to Disprove Justification by Faith Alone, and 3) An Evaluation of Major Passages Cited to Prove Justification by Faith Alone.
I. An Evaluation of the Argument from Silence
Lowrie’s argument above is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence are at best one piece of evidence in any interpretation. To base one’s case on an argument from silence is futile. Two examples show this plainly.
The word trinity never occurs anywhere in the Bible. Based on Lowrie’s reasoning, the concept of the trinity must be false, since God had so many opportunities to use the word and never did. Clearly, while God is but one in essence, yet there are three persons in the Godhead. Theologians have coined the expression the trinity7 to describe this. The fact that this word occurs nowhere in Scripture in no way subverts the truth it conveys.
The same point can be made concerning the expression born again, which occurs only in the Gospels and in Peter’s writings (1 Pet 1:23). The apostle Paul never refers to being born again. By Lowrie’s reasoning, Paul must not have believed in being born again, or else he would have said so. Yet this is an obviously absurd conclusion to draw. Paul spoke of being born of the Spirit (Gal 4:29) and of living by the Spirit (Gal 5:25). He spoke of the “old man” and the “new man” (Eph 4:22, 25). While he didn’t use the exact expression born again, it is clear he believed in it. So, too, while James never mentioned the exact expression, he clearly showed that he believed in being born again when he said that God “brought us forth” (Jas 1:18). That can refer to nothing else but regeneration.
Therefore, the fact that the Scriptures never specifically put the two words faith and alone together when speaking of forensic justification in no way disproves the doctrine. At best it should cause us to look carefully at the evidence for and against the doctrine. This we shall now do, starting with the evidence mustered against the doctrine.
II. An Evaluation of Major Passages Cited to Disprove Justification by Faith Alone
A. James 2:24
As mentioned above, a man I debated cited this verse as proof that justification is not by faith alone. He pointed out that this is the only passage in the Bible where those two terms come together and it says that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone (NASB).”
First, careful attention to the context of Jas 2:24 shows that James is not talking about forensic justification by God, the act whereby He declares a sinner to be righteous. Rather, he is talking about a demonstration of righteousness before men. Verses 21-24 form a unit dealing with Abraham. These verses concern the time when Abraham was about to offer up his only son Isaac on the altar (v 21). That is when Abraham was “justified by works” (v 24).
According to v 23, Abraham was justified by faith long before Isaac was even born! Verse 23 is a citation of Gen 15:6. Verse 24 concerns a time over 20 years after the time Abraham was born again (Genesis 22). Isaac was born ten years after Gen 15:6. Thirteen years later Abraham ascended Mount Moriah to offer up Isaac.
There can be no question but that the justification of Jas 2:23 concerns God’s declaration of Abraham’s right standing with Him and that v 24 concerns a different type of justification altogether—justification before men by works.
Abraham’s justification before men by works “fulfilled” the possibility inherent in his justification before God by faith years before. That is, God declared Abraham righteous, and he was righteous in his position. That was a legal and binding act. However, it in no way guaranteed that Abraham would do what few men in all of recorded history would have done. When Abraham offered up Isaac, he was living in his experience in a manner consistent with his position.
Second, anyone who understands v 24 to be talking about forensic (legal) justification has an insurmountable problem. Paul, also citing Gen 15:6 and talking about Abraham’s justification, unequivocally indicated that forensic justification before God is not by works:
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works…” (Rom 4:3-6).
Paul speaks of “him who does not work” and of those being justified as “the ungodly.”
Unless Scripture contradicts itself—which it doesn’t since it is God’s inerrant Word—James cannot be talking about forensic justification before God in Jas 2:24.
Third, my opponent didn’t quote Jas 2:24 properly—at least not from the KJV, the venerable version he had been using in the rest of the debate. For Jas 2:24, he silently switched to and cited from the New American Standard translation. He failed to mention the KJV, or even that he was changing to a different version.
I’m convinced he did this because we were debating justification by faith alone. By using a different translation he was able to make the point that the only time in Scripture where justification by faith alone appears, the text says that a man is not justified by faith alone.
The KJV reads: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” As you can see, the word alone doesn’t appear in the text of the KJV. Nor does it appear in NKJV. The Greek word translated only here is monon, an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They do not modify nouns. Adjectives modify nouns. We know this is an adverb and not an adjective since Greek has a different form for this word as an adverb (monon) and as an adjective (monhs). Hodges makes this comment concerning monon here:
The Greek adverb “only” (monon) … does not qualify (i.e., modify) the word faith, since the form would then have been monhs. As an adverb, however, it modifies the verb justified implied in the second clause [“and not only justified by faith”]. James is saying that a by-faith justification is not the only kind of justification there is. There is also a by-works justification. The former type is before God; the latter type is before men.8
Thus we might paraphrase the sense of Jas 2:24 in this way: “You see then that a man is justified before men by works, and not only justified before God by faith.” Hodges has made the helpful observation that this same distinction is found in Paul’s writings in Rom 4:2, which reads: “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Paul clearly is suggesting that there is such a thing as justification by works—yet that such a justification is not before God. Hodges comments:
The phrase, “but not before God,” strongly suggests that the Apostle can conceive of a sense in which men are justified by works. But, he insists, that is not the way men are justified before God. That is, it does not establish their legal standing before Him.9
James 2:24 does not deny justification by faith alone before God. Rather, it asserts it (see esp. v 23!).
B. Romans 2:13
This verse is a famous crux text in Romans: “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”
This verse appears to teach justification by works. Faith isn’t even mentioned here. This verse doesn’t teach justification by faith plus works, but merely justification by works. And, it should be noted that this verse is talking about justification “in the sight of God.” It is not talking about justification before men.
This verse has long perplexed commentators, since it appears to contradict Paul’s point in the very next chapter of Romans! There he writes: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom 3:28). And again in chapter 4, as already noted, he writes, “To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
What is going on here?
The solution is easily seen if we examine the context. We realize then whom Paul was addressing and what his subject was in Romans 2. He was talking to self-righteous Jewish legalists who thought that they could be justified before God by keeping the Law of Moses. In chapter 2 he showed them that this is impossible. Verse 13 asserts that it isn’t enough to simply be a hearer of the law. To be saved by works one would have to be a doer of the law. This, of course, no one can do—as Paul directly asserts in chapters 3 and 4!
C. E. B. Cranfield concurs: “In its context in Romans this sentence can hardly be intended to imply that there are some who are doers of the law in the sense that they so fulfill it as to earn God’s justification.”10 So, too, does Anders Nygren:
Far from being safe because he knows the law, the Jew will stand under the judgment of the law. It is the law, in which he reposes his confidence, which is the power which condemns him and turns him over to the wrath of God. His knowledge of the law takes away from him all excuse for his sin. The law cannot save him from his doom. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (vs. 13).11
Paul is speaking hypothetically in v 13, just as the Lord Jesus did with the rich young ruler. Jesus used the Law to show him that he was a sinner in need of the Savior (see Luke 18:18-27). Mark notes in his account of this exchange that Jesus told the disciples, “How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24b). The rich young ruler thought his works were good enough to justify him before God. He felt that his riches proved that he was good. Many Jewish people of that day felt that riches were a sign that one had right standing before God.12
When this man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus pointed him to the Law, not because he could be saved by keeping it, but because he needed to realize that no one could be justified by keeping that Law, himself included.
Thus Rom 2:13 actually shows the impossibility of justification by works before God since no one is a doer of the Law (except the Law-giver Himself, the Lord Jesus).
C. Matthew 7:21-23
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
To some people this passage sounds like it’s denying justification by faith alone. After all, Jesus does say that the only one who will enter the kingdom of heaven is “he who does the will of My Father.”
However, that view of the passage is impossible when put under careful scrutiny. In v 22 the people who call Jesus Lord and yet are excluded from the kingdom are further identified. They are people who claim the right to enter the kingdom on the basis of having prophesied, cast out demons, and done many wonders—all in Jesus’ name.
Jesus’ point here is that no one can expect kingdom entrance on the basis of his or her works, or deeds. Far from contradicting justification by faith alone, He is proving it.
The only way anyone can enter the kingdom is by doing God’s will. In context this is clearly not meant to refer to doing good deeds. The false professors had done good deeds! What they lacked is the one thing that can gain anyone entrance into the kingdom.
All of the following verses show that the will of the Father concerning salvation is that we believe in His Son: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “He who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16b). “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
In answer to the question, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:28-29). The only “work,” the only action, we can perform which will please God in terms of salvation is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and Him alone for eternal life.
D. Matthew 13:44-46
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
It is not uncommon for pastors and teachers to use these two parables to teach that we must buy eternal salvation. For example, one Protestant clergyman devotes an entire chapter to these parables in an effort to prove this very point. He writes:
Both parables make the same point: a sinner who understands the priceless riches of the kingdom will gladly yield everything else he cherishes in order to obtain it. The corresponding truth is also clear by implication: those who cling to their earthly treasures forfeit the far greater wealth of the kingdom…
That is the kind of response the Lord Jesus called for: wholehearted commitment. A desire for him at any cost. Unconditional surrender. A full exchange of self for the Savior. It is the only response that will open the gates of the kingdom. Seen through the eyes of this world, it is as high a price as anyone can pay. But from a kingdom perspective, it is really no sacrifice at all.13
There are a number of problems with this interpretation to say the least.
First, since the subject of the preceding and following parables is the Lord Jesus Himself, as well as His representatives, it’s likely that He is the subject of these parables as well.
The subject of the previous parable, the Parable of the Tares, is explicitly the Lord Jesus Himself: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man” (v 37). In addition, the subjects of the following parable, the Parable of the Dragnet, are angels, not human beings: “The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire” (vv 49b-50a). Angels don’t act on their own initiative. Angels are sent by God. Thus the ultimate subject of the following parable is the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are only four parables which are given after the explanation of vv 34-35. The fact that the first and the last have the Lord Jesus or His representatives as their subjects strongly suggests that He is the subject of the intervening parables as well. The man who buys the treasure and the pearl is most logically the Lord Jesus, not helpless, unregenerate sinners.
Second, other Scriptures make it clear that the Lord Jesus is the One who has bought our salvation. The following passages use the same Greek word (agorazw, translated buys and bought in Matt 13:44-46):
“You were bought at a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23). The verb is passive voice here. The person being saved doesn’t do the buying. God does.
“Denying the Lord who bought them” (2 Pet 2:1). Here the verb is active and the subject is the Lord.
“For You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood” (Rev 5:9). Again, the Lord Jesus is the One who has bought us, not we ourselves.
There is no usage of any form of the verb agorazw in the Bible which speaks of unsaved people buying their own salvation. Not one.
There is a related Greek verb which adds a prepositional prefix to agorazw. The verb is exagorazw. It’s used to refer to the Lord Jesus buying our salvation too, and not to us buying our own salvation:
“Christ has redeemed us” (Gal 3:13).
“God sent forth His Son…to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5).
Since every other use of agorazw and exagorazw has the Lord Jesus as the one buying our salvation, it’s inconceivable that these two parables teach that we buy our own salvation.
Third, it is theologically impossible for an unsaved person to buy his own salvation. Eternal salvation is often called a “gift” and something we receive “freely” in Scripture: “If you knew the gift of God” (John 4:10). “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). “Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev 22:17). “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).
Something we purchase for ourselves is not a gift; it’s a purchase. Something someone else purchases for us is a gift.
It’s absurd to speak of a free gift which “in a sense” costs you everything. Logically that’s just as impossible as a round square or a one-sided triangle.
Fourth, the interpretation that we buy our own salvation is not only exegetically and theologically impossible, it is also practically impossible.
Look at the discussion above of the so-called price we must pay to buy our own salvation. What is that price specifically? The author doesn’t say. He gives some vague generalities about “gladly yield[ing] everything else he cherishes,” “wholehearted commitment,” and “unconditional surrender.” He doesn’t state the specific price. Why? The most likely reason is because it’s impossible to do so and claim the Bible as our guide. The Bible simply doesn’t tell us what we must pay to buy our salvation. Of course, this should suggest that this interpretation of the parables must be wrong.
What if we tried to solve this practical dilemma? What might we tell people the purchase price is for their eternal salvation?
How about money and possessions? If so, how much money and how many possessions? How about 100%? A typical person in many Western nations today has a car, furniture, lots of clothes, stereos, TVs, computers, golf clubs, tennis rackets, etc. A genuine 100% surrender would mean that people must give it all away. All he and she would have left would be the clothes on their backs.
Now, let’s assume that a person has done this to buy his or her salvation. What then? Can he or she then begin to accumulate a new fortune and keep that?
Or, maybe the price is continual rejection of all material possessions. If so, how long should one set of clothes be retained before a new set can be bought? Where should one live? Is homelessness what the Lord is driving at here? What about food? Can one eat more than is necessary merely to survive?
Or, does the price include lifestyle issues? Must one give up things like drunkenness, theft, lying, cheating, immorality, and swearing? What about haughtiness, envy, jealousy, strife, covetousness, and gossip? And, must one begin doing things like praying, giving, attending church, reading the Bible, confessing Christ, etc.?
What if a person has trouble giving up something someone has told him he needs to give up in order to buy his salvation? Is trying good enough? What if a person finds he still struggles with jealousy or covetousness?
What if a person is having trouble doing the things she is supposed to do? What if she finds she’s only reading the Bible and praying for fifteen minutes a day? Is that enough? What if she only attends church once a week? Is that enough? What if she only witnesses to one person a week? Is that enough?
These are exactly the types of questions with which a brilliant man like Martin Luther struggled. How long did he need to pray each day? How much devotion did he need? This type of question plagued him until he realized that justification is by faith alone.
I personally went through that type of experience too. I spent years striving to be good enough to merit salvation, yet I had the nagging doubt that I would never be good enough. Many of our readers can identify with the confusion that results from being told that we must buy our own salvation.
I raise all these issues to show how impossible the “we-buy-our-own-salvation” interpretation is in a practical sense. No one could ever know if he had paid the price, since the Bible never tells us to buy our salvation and hence never tells us the price we must pay.
Of course, the Bible does state the purchase price. It is the blood of Christ. He paid it all. He is the One who bought the field and the pearl.14 He bought the kingdom and He gives it away. There is nothing left for us to pay.
We have considered a number of passages often cited to prove that justification is not merely by faith alone. We saw that none of them actually refutes justification by faith alone.
Now let’s look at passages which are often cited to prove that justification really is by faith alone.
II. An Evaluation of Major Passages Cited to Prove Justification by Faith Alone
A. Luke 18:9-14
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Two men enter the temple to pray. One is a religious person, probably highly regarded by all in the community. The other is a tax collector (or publican), looked down upon by the whole Jewish community. Earle notes:
As a class, the tax collectors were hated by their fellow Jews. This was almost inevitable. They represented the foreign domination of Rome. Their methods were necessarily inquisitorial. That they often overcharged people and pocketed the surplus is almost certain. In the rabbinical writings they are classified with robbers.15
The Lord Jesus evaluates the prayers and the spiritual condition of these two men. We might expect that He would be pleased with the prayer of the pious man and displeased with the prayer of the social outcast. Actually, the story has a surprising turn. Jesus commends the publican and says that he went away justified, whereas the religious man did not!
The ungodly man didn’t do anything to make himself righteous. He didn’t amend his life. He didn’t even promise to do so. He didn’t do any good deeds. He merely humbled himself before God and asked God to be merciful to Him.
Some people mistakenly think that Jesus was here teaching that people could be saved without coming to Him. They find credence here for the idea that all that is needed is a humble crying out to God. Thus some think that Buddhists, Hindus, and animists who cry out to God to be merciful to them are saved even without ever having believed in Christ.
While I believe that all who in genuine humility cry out to God to be merciful to them will ultimately hear the Gospel, believe it, and hence be saved, that is not the point here. This man went away justified that very day.
Elsewhere Jesus taught that “no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6) and that “he who does not believe [in Him] is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Thus the tax collector’s cry must have been set against the backdrop of Messianic expectation. In fact, Kenneth Bailey suggests that this prayer took place during the temple service when the atoning sacrifices were being offered.16 The publican must have recognized that Jesus is the Messiah, the One who is the ultimate atoning sacrifice (cf. Heb 10:1ff). The Samaritans of Sychar were able to make this connection (John 4:42). This man must have done so as well, or else he wouldn’t have gone away that day justified.
The moral of this parable is clear. Justification is not by our works. Those who “trust in themselves that they [are] righteous, and [who] despise others” (v 9) need to humble themselves. If they don’t, then they will never be justified and they will spend eternity separated from God and His kingdom, eternally humbled.
It’s human nature to think I am justified because I am a good person in comparison to lots of other people. Even if I’m not ahead of the curve morally, it is easy to rationalize that I am. After all, if I’m the ultimate judge, then I will be justified.
However, we aren’t the judge. God is. The person who is justified by God is the one who recognizes that he is a sinner and who looks to God to be merciful to him in light of the finished work of the Messiah.
While it is true that the words faith alone don’t occur in this parable, it is clear that this is precisely what the Lord was talking about. The man was justified not because of any works on his part. He was justified solely because he trusted in God through the Messiah.
Bailey’s comments are helpful:
The original self-righteous audience is pressed to reconsider how righteousness is achieved. Jesus proclaims that righteousness is a gift of God made possible by means of the atonement sacrifice, which is received by those who, in humility, approach as sinners trusting in God’s grace and not their own righteousness. As Jeremias has succinctly observed, “Our passage shows … that the Pauline doctrine of justification has its roots in the teachings of Jesus (Jeremias, Parables, 114).17
B. Romans 3:21-25
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:21-26).
Paul here indicates that a person is justified “freely” (Gk.: dwrean). Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker say of this word in this verse, “justified, declared upright, as a gift.”18 Being justified by God freely is something which Paul explicitly says is “apart from the law” (v 21). Men can’t be justified before God by their works “for all have sinned [perfect tense] and fall short [present tense] of the glory of God” (v 23).
Robert Govett comments on Rom 3:24,
This righteousness comes to us “freely”—that is, by way of gift. We thus learn how it becomes ours “without law.” Law demands payment in full of us. But so we can never attain righteousness. Therefore righteousness becomes ours, aye, “the righteousness of God,” by our receiving another’s work on our behalf. The principle of law is: “The man that doeth shall live.” But here are gift and grace. We add nothing to this completed righteousness of Christ.19
Some might object that Paul doesn’t specifically say here that justification is by faith alone. Yet that argument from silence is nonsensical here. There is no doubt as to Paul’s meaning. Paul is clearly saying that faith in Christ is the sole condition of justification before God. It is the only condition he mentions. This is in keeping with the teaching of the Lord Jesus Himself: “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Paul continues his defense of justification by faith alone in Romans 4. We now turn to consider three powerful verses, Rom 4:3-5, which show that justification is by faith alone and is not by faith plus works.
C. Romans 4:3-5
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom 4:3-5).
When you complete two weeks of pay and your employer gives you a paycheck, you’ve earned it. It isn’t a gift. It’s something the company owes you. A debt.
That is not the case with justification before God. God is not a debtor to us. He doesn’t owe us a thing. We haven’t done anything that merits a legal declaration of us as righteous. In fact, as Paul said in v 5, God “justifies the ungodly.” It’s unrighteous people that God declares righteous!
God can declare the unrighteous to be righteous because, as Paul explained in Rom 3:24-26, the Lord Jesus shed His blood for us. Our sins are imputed to Jesus’ account and His righteousness to our account: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21).
Anders Nygren’s comments on these verses are so helpful that I will give an extended quotation:
Abraham may have something of which to boast before men; “but not before God.” Before God there cannot be any boasting at all. Paul can deny the conclusion, because he denies the premise on which it rests. For by its very nature Abraham’s righteousness was not by the law or by works, but by faith. Not only does Paul say so, but Scripture testifies to that. Paul has “the law and the prophets” on his side in what they have to say about Abraham and his righteousness. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’” In the passage cited (Gen 15:6), nothing is said about Abraham’s works; only his faith is noted… “Reckon” means the same as to “reckon because of grace.” Therefore Paul continues, “Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
With that Paul has reached a point which is of utmost importance in his interpretation. Here he can tolerate no mistiness. He must insist on clear and precise characterization. He tolerates no indecision between faith and works. He sets forth either—or. Either it depends on works—and then boasting may continue, since it is not by grace but by his own merit that man is judged righteous. Or it depends on faith—and then all else is excluded, works, merit, wages, boasting; and then it is indeed the justification of the sinner. In other words, it is no longer a matter of our works, but of God’s. Faith always has the action of God as its correlative.20
Now there’s an excellent presentation of Paul’s point!
Justification is by faith, apart from works. Another way of saying this is that justification is by faith alone.
D. John 4:1-42 (the Salvation of a Sinful Woman)
How would you witness to a person you knew was “living in sin”? Would you tell them that they had to stop living with the person before they could be saved? Would they have to commit to be willing to do that? The Lord Jesus faced this very situation with a Samaritan woman He met at a well outside the village of Sychar.
The Lord told her that eternal life is a gift: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (v 10). He also pointed out her sinfulness: “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (v 18).
This led her to perceive that He was a prophet (v 19) and to wonder if He might not be the Messiah (v 25). When Jesus acknowledged that He really was the Messiah, she left her waterpot, perhaps a symbol of her old religion (compare John 2:1-11), and went to tell the men of Sychar that she had found the Messiah (vv 29, 39).
Here was a woman of ill repute. She wasn’t even Jewish. She was a hated Samaritan. On top of that, she was living in immorality. Surely here was a person who was not a candidate for salvation!
Yet this woman comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah and gets saved.
Jesus never told her she would have to give up her immoral lifestyle to have eternal life. He never told her she’d have to promise to give it up. He showed her that she was a sinner in need of the Savior. She responded by believing in Him. Zane Hodges agrees: “There had been no special conditions attached to that offer, no demands for the reformation of her twisted life, nothing in fact but the simple offer of a wondrous gift.”21
While the word justify does not appear in John 4, justification by faith alone is clearly in view in this passage. This woman gained eternal life by faith alone. She had no works to commend her. God accepted her as righteous in His sight because she trusted in His Son for eternal life. Eric Gritsch points out that the words justification and righteousness need not occur in a passage for those themes to be under discussion:
The message of justification by faith and of salvation by grace is a basic theme of Scripture. Even when the terms “righteousness” and “justification” are not used, this theme is prominent. At its center is the message of salvation in Christ.22
Justification before God is by faith alone. God justifies the ungodly, not the godly. He does so freely, not out of any debt that He might owe.
God declares sinners to be righteous because the Lord Jesus paid the full and complete payment for all our sins. He lived a sinless life. By His shed blood He did all that was necessary for our justification. This justification is either received as a gift, or it is not received at all. Those who think that they are righteous by their works can’t be justified. Justification is for those who believe in Christ and Him alone for it.
IV. Yes, Justification Is by Faith Alone!
Justification by faith alone is a central tenet of Christianity. Without it, Christianity really loses its raison d’ï¿½tre. We who believe in the Free Grace Gospel are, humanly speaking, guardians of the greatest treasure on earth.
Peter Sedgwick was right when he said,
It has been frequently pointed out with much conviction that this doctrine is not, at the end of the day, an academic issue. It concerns how people live, pray and deal with their own sinfulness.23
If justification is not by faith alone, then no one can be sure he has eternal life. Assurance by works means no assurance at all since our works are imperfect. Doubt, fear, and guilt are the order of the day for people confused about forensic justification. They have no way of “dealing with their own sinfulness” since there is no other effective way to deal with our sinfulness than by looking solely to the finished work of Christ on the cross.
The message of justification by faith alone is not subject to modification. We must stand firmly on this ground. All other ground is sinking sand.
1Gerhard Forde, “Justification by Faith Alone. The Article by which the Church Stands or Falls?” Dialog 27 (Fall 1988): 260-67.
3Kenneth Allen, “Justification by Faith,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (April-June 1978): 112.
4Joseph Plevnik, “Recent Developments in the Discussion Concerning Justification by Faith,” Toronto Journal of Theology 2 (Spring 1986): 58.
5Walter Lowrie, What is Christianity? (New York, NY: Pantheon Publishing Co., 1953), 91-112.
7Our word is from the early Christian Latin word trinitas.
8Zane C. Hodges, The Epistle of James: Proven Character Through Testing (Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1994), 71, italics his.
9Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege: Faith and Works in Tension, Second Edition (Dallas: Redenciï¿½n Viva, 1992), 34.
10C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 1:155. N.B.: Cranfield concurs on what Rom 2:13 doesn’t mean. However, he disagrees on what it does mean. Cranfield continues, “Rather is Paul thinking of that beginning of grateful obedience to be found in those who believe in Christ, which though very weak and faltering and in no way deserving God’s favour, is, as the expression of humble trust in God, well-pleasing in His sight.”
11Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1949), 121.
12A similar idea grew up in New England in the late 1600s that prosperity was a sign that one was among the elect. This helped the Puritan evolve into the Yankee, in the old, narrow meaning of a “shrewd” businessman or farmer.
13John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 142, 148.
14Some suggest that the field in this parable represents Israel and the pearl represents the Church. See Charles C. Bing, “Lordship Salvation: A Biblical Evaluation and Response,” an unpublished Th.D. Disseration, Dallas Theological Seminary, May 1991, 151-54.
15R. Earle, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol 5, s. v. “Tax Collector,” ed. by Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House 1976), 606.
16Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, Combined Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 146ff.
18A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, 1979), 210.
19Robert Govett, Govett on Romans (Hayesville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Co., 1981), 52, italics original.
20Nygren, Romans, 169-70.
21 odges, The Hungry Inherit (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1980), 128.
22Eric Gritsch, “Justification by Faith and Ecclesial Communion: Pointers from the Lutheran-Catholic Dialog,” chapter 6 in Church and Theology: Essays in Memory of Carl J. Peter (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 164, italics supplied.
23 Peter Sedgwick, “‘Justification by Faith’: One Doctrine, Many Debates?” Theology 93 (January/February 1990): 6-7.