This year sees an important anniversary. On 31st October 1517, Martin Luther launched the reformation in Europe when he fixed a document to the door of the church at Wittenberg in Germany. The document contained ninety-five ‘theses’ or arguments which challenged corruptions in the Roman Catholic Church. It was a bold protest against particular errors in teaching and practice and it quickly gained popular support. The Lord was powerfully at work and the movement led to a recovery of biblical truth, and especially the gospel way of salvation.
Central to the gospel is the doctrine of justification. Luther famously said that justification is “the article of a standing or falling Church.” It seems that the devil is only too aware just how important this truth is, and does what he can to corrupt it, in an attempt to undermine the church’s foundation. Sadly his efforts seem to be bearing fruit in the Protestant churches today. Ministers and theologians who ought to know better are giving an uncertain sound, teaching that a man is justified by faith in Christ and by works. But what do the Scriptures say, and especially the apostle Paul?
According to the Bible, justification is the reckoning of a sinner as righteous by God. Paul wrote: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth” (Rom.8:33). In justification, God does not make a man righteous, but declares him to be so, in terms of the unchanging standard of His holy law. Sin is pardoned and the person who was once cast out as a law-breaker is now accepted as righteous and able to enjoy all the riches of salvation. Justification is by God alone.
We also learn that sinners are justified by the crediting of righteousness to them. Paul says, quoting the Psalmist: “David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Rom.4:6,7). Justification changes a man’s status rather than his nature. God passes a sentence upon us which is the opposite of the condemnation we have earned by our sin. Justification is wholly undeserved by us, and is complete and permanent. Justification is by grace alone.
Scripture shows us that sinners are justified solely through the merit of Jesus Christ. Paul states: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom.3:24). Salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Tit.3:5), but by the atoning work which Christ, the Son of God, has done as the Mediator. Coming into this world by taking our nature, Jesus kept God’s law perfectly, which is something none of us could ever do, and suffered its penalty, bearing the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin. Justification is by Christ alone.
Finally we learn that sinners are justified wholly apart from personal works or worth. Justification is granted to all who put their trust in Christ for salvation. Paul says: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom.4:5). The faith by which we are justified is itself “the gift of God” (Eph.2:8). Justification is by faith alone.
In the light of these things we must ask ourselves, Am I right with God? It all depends upon our relationship to Christ. We must turn from sin and self and put our trust wholly in the Saviour’s finished work!