The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone

by Michael Bremmer

"He has not dealt with us according to our sins" (Ps. 103.10).

No Christian can deny the certainty that God has appointed a day in which He will judge all people. However, belief in a final judgment is not limited to the Christian faith. According to Barna Report, 74% of Americans strongly agree with the statement that God will judge all people! The most relevant question, therefore, is how does one become right with God before that appointed day? Concerning this crucial question Charles Hodge has written: "The answer given to this question decides the character of our religion, and, if practically adopted, our future destiny. To give a wrong answer, is to mistake the way to heaven. It is to err where error is fatal, because it cannot be corrected. If God requires one thing, and we present another, how can we be saved? If He has revealed a method in which he can be just and yet justify the sinner, and if we reject that method, and insist upon pursuing a different way, how can we hope to be accepted?" (1)

How does one become right with God? Before answering this question, we must first answer two other questions. First, on what basis are we judged, and, secondly, who will judge us? The answer to the first question, the basis of judgment, the apostle Paul makes it all too clear: "For not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified" (Rom. 2.4). Our Lord said to the same to the Rich Young Ruler who asked of Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus tells this young man that if he wishes eternal life, then he must keep the law; then Jesus rigidly applies what it means to keep the law in such a manner that the disciples were astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?" (Mt. 19.16-26). The standard God will use on the coming day of judgment is His Law, perfectly kept. Our Lord Himself says that we are to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5.48). And, as James points out, "For whosoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, has become guilty of all" (Ja. 2.10).

But surely, someone might protest, God cannot judge humanity so rigidly! He must allow for mistakes, after all we are only human! However, this objection brings us to the second question, Who is it that will judge us? Perhaps a better question is, What is this Judge like? The Bible tells us that God is holy, righteous, and just, therefore His treatment of us must also be holy, righteous, and just. For God to be just, He must condemn the sinner for this is what His the law demands, "The soul that sinneth shall die' and, "the wages of sin is death" (Ex. 18.4; Rom. 6.23). God is immutable (2)and He cannot customize His Law to fit the short comings of His creatures, and because He is just He cannot accept inferior obedience, nor can He just look the other way. The law demands what the sinner cannot give-- perfect righteousness; and if God is holy, righteous, and just, then the law must be satisfied: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen. 18.25).

Obviously, understanding the nature of the One who will judge the world, and understanding the basis of this judgment, no one will escape a guilty sentence from God's throne. The Scriptures tell us, "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them" (Gal. 3.10). Left to ourselves, all of us will be found guilty and condemned: "There is none righteous, not even one," "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3.10, 23). The problem is not that we have some faults that maybe God will graciously overlook. We are sinners. Moreover, we are not sinners merely because we sin, but because we are inherently sinful. In other words, not only are we not right with God because we sin, but because sin dwells within us as well (Rom. 7.14). How can we, then, in this dreadful state, ever hope to be right with God? This brings us to our original question: How do I, a sinner, a transgressor of the law, become right with a holy, righteous, and just God? Given the circumstances, it is seemingly hopeless.

Now the good news. The same God and judge of the world, who is holy, righteous, and just, who must condemn the guilty, is also a God of love, mercy and grace; and HE has revealed a way in which He can in love, mercy, and grace freely forgive the sinner, yet remain holy, righteous and just. This way is by giving to the undeserving sinner His own righteousness--the righteousness of God. The Scriptures tell us, "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction" (Rom. 3.21-22). "And that I may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith" (Phil.3.9). This righteousness from God, given to all who believe, and is the basis for our justification, is what this article is about.


The Shorter Catechism answers the question, "What is justification?" with: "An act of God's free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith" (3).In justification, God declares us just not because of anything we do, or anything in us, but for the righteousness of Christ that God graciously imputes to the believer.

There is, however, much confusion and false teaching regarding justification. Therefore, it will be helpful in this study to examine what justification is not.


The idea that justification consists ONLY in the forgiveness of a sinner disregards the immutability of God's law, and infers that God's law is imperfect. God's law, however, is perfect(4)and immutable. (5) Scriptures teach that God, in justifying the believer, does not lower His standard or disregard the penalty of the law, but through Jesus Christ delivers the believer from the penalty of His law through its execution (Rom. 8.3-4). The law of God thus satisfied on our behalf, God declares us to be what we truly are in His sight: not guilty. God must act according to justice. Unless God's justice is satisfied, there is no justification. If, therefore, justification only consisted in the forgiveness of the sinner, then we do not need a Savior, or atonement.

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand -
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land. . . .
O safe and happy shelter!
O refuge tried and sweet!
O trysting-place, where heaven's love
And heaven's justice (6)


"Just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works" (Rom. 4.6).

The Scriptures teach that justification is not by works of any kind: "Who saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to works, but according to His own purpose and grace granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity" (2 Tm. 1.9). "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (Ti. 3.5). "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace" (Rom. 11.6). "Just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works" (Rom. 4.6).

Some argue that the works Paul refers to are the ceremonial law. However, note carefully that in these verses the work is unspecified. The apostle's intent was to let his readers know that justification is not possible by works of any kind. And when the apostle does speak of the inability of justification by works of the law, he means law in a comprehensive sense and not of the ceremonial law. Furthermore, the ceremonial law view contradicts the objection made to Paul's teaching. Those hearing Paul's teaching on Justification apart from the Law objected, saying, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? May it never be!" (Rom. 6.15). If Paul was teaching that in justification we are free from the ceremonial law, regarding justification, yet still bound to the moral law for justification, then this objection is pointless. As Charles Hodge observes, "Had Paul taught that we are free from the ceremonial, to be subject to the moral law, there could have been no room for an objection. But if he taught that the moral itself could not give life, that we must be freed from its demands as the condition of acceptance with God, then, indeed, to the wise of this world, it might seem that he was losing the bands of moral obligation, and opening the door to the greatest licentiousness." (7)If salvation is all of grace, as the Scriptures teach, then grace must exclude all works. Grace and works are antithetical(8)

Many acknowledge that salvation is by grace and not works, yet what they seemingly grant with one sentence they take back with the next. They insist that salvation be by grace through faith, but then define faith so it becomes the work. For example, Dake's Annotated Reference Bible says on page 55 of the Old Testament:


Apart from Dake's confusion over regeneration's place in the Ordo Salutis, his statement on justification is seemingly orthodox--until he defines faith. For example, on page 201 of the New Testament he gives this definition of faith:

"Full surrender, yieldedness, and obedience to all known (9).

Dake's definition of faith is part of the notes for Jn. 3.15. The verse reads:

"That whosoever believes" and according to Dake, belief means full surrender, yieldedness, and obedience to all know truth, "may in Him have eternal life."

On page 107 of the New Testament, Dake writes:

"3 things men must do and continue in to receive eternal life: 1. Believe, which implies complete and continual obedience" (10).

One need not be a theologian to recognize that the gospel according to Dake is salvation by works and heretical. However, for those who are still not convince, try to meet Dake's so-called conditions for eternal life on page 100 of the New Testament. There are only 23!

Not what my hands have done Can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole;
Not all my prayers and signs and tears
Can bear my awful load.
Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
No other works save thine,
No other blood will do,
No strength save that which is divine
Can bear me safely through. Horatius Bonar


The words justification and justify mean to "acquit, declare righteous, vindicate, to justify as a judicial act " (11). In theology, justification refers to God's judicial declaration that all those who trust in Jesus Christ are right before God. Justification is a judicial or forensic act by God as judge. Justification always has this forensic sense. No matter what one may believe about the basis of justification--whether imparted righteousness, or imputed righteousness--it is still a judicial declaration. In other words, the question is not whether justification is forensic or not, the question is, What is the ground for this judicial declaration? Is it imputed righteousness, that is, as Luther says, an "alien righteousness," something outside ourselves, or is the ground of Justification imparted righteousness, that is, subjective, something within us, a personal righteousness infused into the believer by God's grace? This is the heart of the controversy. Therefore, some are careless when they say that justification is not a judicial declaration. To justify is always used in the Scriptures, when speaking of salvation, a judicial declaration. The only question is, What is the ground, or basis, of this judicial declaration?

Many insist that the basis of God's declaration is not because of Christ's righteousness imputed to the believer, but is an actual imparting of righteousness, making one holy and righteous. In other words, believers become just with God not by a declarative righteousness grounded in the satisfaction made by Christ's atonement and imputed to the believer, but with imparted righteousness infused into the believer. The Roman Catholic Church, for example teaches: "Justification . . . is not only remission of sins but also the sanctification renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just" (Chapter 7). "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning nothing else is required to co-operate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the actions of his will, let him be anathema" (Chapter 16). "If any one saith that righteousness received is not preserved and increased before

God through good works; but that he said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be accursed" (Chapter 16.24). The Roman Catholic Church teaches that justification is more than the declaration that one is righteous. They teach that justification is an infusion of righteousness, an inner renewal. In teaching this, the Roman Catholic Church confuses justification with sanctification, an error that the Reformers unhesitatingly attacked. However, this error is no longer limited to the Roman Catholic Church. The FLSB (12)comments:

"The word 'justify' (Gk. dikaio) means to be just (or righteous) before God' (Rom. 2.13), 'to be made righteous' (Rom. 5.18-19), 'to establish as right,' or 'to set or put right.' It denotes being in a right relationship with God rather than receiving a mere legal, judicial declaration . . . When we are put right with God by faith in Christ, we are crucified with Christ and Christ comes to live in us (Gal. 2.16-21). Through this experience, we actually become righteous and begin living unto God (2.19-21)." (13)

Again, the FLSB, commenting on 2 Cor. 5.21, states:

"Righteousness here does not refer to a legal righteousness, but to the experiential righteousness of the child of God as a new creature, i. e., to his character and moral state which is founded on and flows from his faith in Christ . . . Only to the extent that we live in union and fellowship with Christ do we become the righteousness of God."(14)

In other words, according to the FLSB justification is by our experiential righteousness or character and moral state, and continued fellowship with Christ. Salvation by works could not be more clearly stated.

Baptist Floyd Hays Barackman, author of Practical Christian Theology, of which it was said is "one of the best outlined one-volume books on theology in print today," writes:

"This constitutional righteousness is a quality of our renewed nature . . . Justification consists not only of divine declaration that one is righteous but also the divine work that makes the gospel believer righteous . . . Thus, in justifying us, God not only made us righteous but also gives us true righteousness, with the result that in His sight we are forever righteous in Christ." (15)

To say that we are justified by making us subjectively righteous, by imparting righteousness, producing a moral change within, is to confuse justification with sanctification and is nothing less then salvation by human effort, something the Bible condemns continuously.

Justification, however, does not make us subjectively righteous. It does not produce any moral change. This fact can be proven in the following ways:

(a) Perhaps no better way to understand the meaning of a word then to observe other words or expressions placed in opposition to it. This is true for the word "justify." In the Scriptures, the word "justify," is often placed in opposition to condemnation. One excellent example of this is found in Romans 8.33-34, "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?" In this passage, justify is clearly the opposite of condemn. If to condemn does not mean to make one subjectively wicked, then to justify cannot mean to make subjectively righteous(16).

(b) In many passages the meaning of justify clearly does not mean to make subjectively righteous. For example, in Deut. 25.1 we read, "If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked." Clearly justify does mean to make righteous, but means to declare one to be righteous. Similarly, condemn does not mean to make one wicked, but to declare one to be wicked. In Prov. 17.15, this distinction is made even clearer: "He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them are an abomination to the LORD." If justify means to make one subjectively righteous, then why is it an abomination to God to justify the wicked(17) The few verses offered, such as Rom. 8.30, in an attempt to show that the word justify can also mean to make righteous are forced, and are more easily understood to mean to declare righteous.

(c) Equivalent expressions have a declarative sense: Jn. 3.18; 5.24; Rom. 4.6-7, 9, 11; 2 Cor. 5.19, 21; Ps.32.1

(d) Infused righteousness cannot wipe out past sins, or satisfy the requirements of the law. The law demands perfect righteousness: "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them" (Gal. 3.10). Therefore, apart from imputed righteousness, God's law and holy character must be lowered to accept imperfect righteousness. (e) The Scriptures say that God justifies the ungodly(18) therefore, when God justifies us He does not make us subjectively holy. For God would first have to make us subjectively holy before He could declares us justified.

Note that Calvinists need not prove that the words justify and justification are never used in a moral or ethical sense to preserve the true doctrine of justification. As James Buchanan has said in his excellent work, The Doctrine of Justification:

"In order to determine its Scriptural meaning, it is not necessary to undertake the burden of proving either that it might not be used, or that, in point of fact, it has never been used, in the sense of making one righteous; for, although Popish divines and their followers have generally attempted to show that, in some passages, it is used in an 'efficient, moral' sense, and some Protestant writers have maintained, in opposition to them, that these passages do not necessarily require that construction, it is enough to establish the only point which is of essential importance in the argument, - namely, that, whenever it is used with reference to our acceptance with God, it can only be understood in a judicial or forensic sense."

Justification, then, does not produce a subjective change in the believer, nor does it make the believer subjectively holy. In other words, justification does not alter one's character. Justification will not make one morally better; it is not an inner change for the better. These are all true of sanctification, but not justification. We must, therefore, make a careful distinction between justification and sanctification. Sanctification does make a moral change, justification does not. Sanctification does make one subjectively holy, but justification does not. Justification is not the result of any moral change in us, nor is justification continued by our good works. Justification and sanctification are often confused and confounded, blurring this vital distinction. Throughout the history of the church, this error has had a devastating affect on the gospel of grace, and was itself the primary catalyst for Protestant Reformation; for if justification and sanctification are not carefully distinguished, then justification by works will necessarily follow.

Although justification and sanctification are distinct doctrines within the ordo salutis, yet they are never separate in the conversion experience of the believer or in the Christian life. When we are justified, we are also always experiencing, in varying degrees, sanctification. Failure to recognize this necessarily will lead to the error of easy believism.


" The Lord our Righteousness"Jer.23.6

Only two answers can be given to the question, "How does one become right with God?" Either God lowers His holiness, righteousness, and demands of His holy Law, to accept the only thing man can offer -- imperfect righteousness, or, God Himself must provide a righteousness acceptable to His holiness, righteousness, and holy law. No other alternative exists. The former, the Reformed reject as unbiblical, the latter is the Biblical doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

God, because of who He is, must judge according to truth. If, it is an abomination for God to justify the wicked, as the Scriptures say (19), then how can God be just and justify the ungodly? The doctrine of imputation answers this question. Since justification means to declare one to be just regarding the Law, the question is, On what basis is this declaration made? No one has fully and sincerely obeyed! The declaration of Scripture is, "There is none righteous, no not even one," and "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3.10, 23). How then can a holy and just God declare sinners to be just? Since we are not righteous, the only way for God to be just and justify sinners is to either impart righteousness, or impute righteousness. Imparted righteousness has been sufficiently dealt with and shown to be false. Therefore, we turn to the Biblical answer: The imputed righteousness of Christ.

The doctrine of imputation of the righteousness of Christ means: "An act of God . . . of His mere love and grace; whereby, on the consideration of the mediation of Christ, He makes an effectual grant and donation of a true, real, perfect righteousness, even that of Christ Himself, unto all that believe; and accounting it as theirs, on His gracious act, both absolves them from sin and granteth them right and title unto eternal life"(20). Paul writes: "Just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works," "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him," and "And may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from on the basis of faith" (Rom. 4.6; 2 Cor. 5.21; Philp. 3.9).

To impute, or reckon, means to put to another's account. In the doctrine of imputation, God imputes, or, credits the righteousness of Christ to the believer (21). The apostle Paul gives us an illustration of imputation in his letter to Philemon. Paul tells Philemon, owner of the run away slave Onesimus, "But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, CHARGE that to my account" (vs. 18). In justification, Christ's perfect obedience God imputes to the believer, satisfying the requirements of the law and the conditions of the covenant of works; His righteousness becomes our righteousness; His obedience becomes our obedience; therefore, the believer can never be justly condemned: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ (22).

This righteousness of God is not forgiveness, justification and acceptance by God as some Arminians would have us to believe(23). Forgiveness, and acceptance with God are fruits of justification, not the elements of justification. (24) Nor is the righteousness of God Christ dwelling in us, otherwise Christ would have to dwell in a person before salvation. This righteousness that we have through faith in Christ alone is called the righteousness of God because He provides it, (25) God accepts it, (26) and it is the righteousness of a divine person.

The righteousness of God does not mean the "redemptive active in the sphere of human sin by which He, in a just way, puts us in a right relationship with Himself and liberates us from the power of evil" as stated in the FLSB for this is merely confusing justification with the righteousness of God. In other words, God indeed does put us in a right relationship with Himself, and liberates us from the power of evil, but this is done through the righteousness of Christ.

Justification rests upon full satisfaction of divine justice. When God justifies the believer, He pronounces him or her to be just, and treats such a one accordingly. He does this on the basis that all law's demands are satisfied for the believer. This satisfaction of the law is not through human effort, faith, obedience, or Christ's work in us, but by Christ's law satisfying righteousness given to the one whom through faith trust in Him. Justification is more than pardon, forgiveness, or the slate being wiped clean. When God imputes Christ's obedience to me, it becomes, and is, my obedience; future sins, therefore, have no bearing on my relation with God as Judge. What God sees regarding my standing to His law, is the perfect obedience of Christ imputed to me; therefore, the law can never judge me. Dying with unconfessed sin does not affect on my standing with God, since my relationship to the law is changed; for I have, through God's grace, perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the law in Christ Jesus. Christ paid for my sins at the cross, and His perfect righteousness God imputes to my account, I cannot lose my salvation because in justification we are, in God's sight, as righteous as Christ, being clothed with His perfect righteousness. Do you believe this? We have entered a new and dynamic relationship with God, for our surety has fulfilled the Law for righteousness and bore our judgment, therefore, God no is longer our judge and dread, He is our heavenly Father. This is what Christ has freely done for all who trust in Him alone. This is God's justification. Any other way is man's way. We are either declared righteous by God because of Christ's obedience imputed to us, or by our own imperfect righteousness. If the latter is true, then God is not just, righteous or Holy, and we are dead in our sins.

When in Thy Name we trust, Our faith receive a righteousness That makes the sinner just.


(1) The Way of Life, P. 97
(2) Mal. 3.1
(3) Q. # 33
(4) Ps. 119
(5) Mt. 5.17
(6) Stott, The Cross of Christ, P.132.
(7) The Way of Life, P.110.
(8) Rom. 11.6.
(9) Col. 4 note 5.
(10) Col. 1 note 1.
(11) TDNT, P. 168f; A & God; P.19; CWSD, P. 463. However, the CWSD confuses the grounds of this declaration.
(12) The Full Life Study Bible.
(13) P. 1727.
(14) P.1812.
(15) P.352-353. Note his misrepresentation of John Murray
(16) See also: Rom.5.16; Deut. 25.1; 1 Kgs. 8.33; Prov. 17.15; Mt. 12.37; Job 9.20; 34.17.
(17) See also Lk. 7.29; Mt. 11.19; Lk. 10.29; Job 32.2; Ex. 23.7; Isa. 5.23; Gal. 2.16.
(18) Rom. 4.5
(19) Prov. 17.15.
(20) John Owen, P. 173.
(21) Rom. 3.24; 5.9, 19; 1 Cor. 1.30; 6.11; 2 Cor. 5.21; Phil. 3.9
(22) Rom. 8.1. See also: Rom. 5.12-19; Phil. 3.9.
(23) 2 Cor. 5.21
(24) Rom. 5.1.
(25) Philp. 3.9.
(26) Rom. 4.5.

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