The Reformation Concept of Justification By Faith
Rome and the Reformers both declared that a man is justified by God’s work of grace. It is all-important that we see the real contrast between the Roman and the Reformation faiths:
The real difference between Rome and the Reformation was in fundamental emphasis. In Romanism the meritorious cause is essentially subjective – it is man-centered, experience-centered. In the Reformation the meritorious cause was objective – it was Christ-centered as focusing upon His sinless life and atoning death on the cross.
The focal point of Catholic theology is God’s work of grace within human experience. That is why it is so devastating to Christian freedom. Man is a prisoner because his own experience has become the center of his concern.
Catholic doctrine adds despair to grief by basing a man’s standing with God on what grace does within him.
If a man’s acceptance and right standing with God depend upon God’s grace within his own heart, then he must ask himself, “How much grace must I have operative in me before I can stand justified before God? How prayerful, repentant, loving or obedient must grace make me before God can accept me?” This was the problem that confronted that devout Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. While he based his right standing with God on God’s work of grace in his heart, he could never be sure that he had enough of God’s grace in his heart. In fact, the more he looked within his own experience to find a basis of his acceptance with God, the more he was tormented by the sight of his own sinfulness.
Then came the enlightenment of the gospel in the rediscovery of Paul’s doctrine of justification. Says the apostle: “. . . being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 3:24. The New English Bible translates the passage: “. . . all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through His act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus.” This shows us that rather than being justified on the basis what God does within us, we are justified on the basis what God did altogether outside of us. God accomplished His act of liberation for all men in Jesus Christ. Here is the dividing of the way between Rome and the Reformation. Rome declares that a man is justified by God’s work of grace in his heart. The Reformation declares that a man is justified on the basis of God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ alone.
Christ, Our Everlasting Father
How did we become sinners before God? The answer to this question throws great light on the vital question, How do we become righteous before God?
Paul’s doctrine is this: We did not become sinners before God by something that happened within us. We became sinners because of something that happened outside of us, in another person altogether. “By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” Rom. 5:19. Adam was our first father. He stood as our federal head. The whole human family was constituted in him. When he fell, it was the same as if every man had fallen. This is Paul’s argument in Romans 5:15-19: One man’s offence brought death and condemnation upon many. Other translations read “the many,” “the whole race.”
The tragedy of the fall and condemnation of the whole human race in Adam was the outworking of the law of fatherhood. Children share the lot of the father. The Canaanite children were destroyed along with their parents. Achan’s family died because of the father’s covetousness. Even in secular life, if a wealthy father loses his property in business reverses, the children are made poor in their father’s poverty.
Satan rejoiced at the fall of Adam — rejoiced because he won the whole human race when Adam fell into sin. Now if Satan could cause the condemnation of all men in one man, could not God do the same thing in one Man? Indeed, this was the gospel mystery that took the devil by surprise.
God reversed the fall of Adam by providing the human race with another Father, as it is written, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Isa. 9:6. We do not generally think of Christ as being our Father, but this is exactly as Paul presents Him who became “the second Adam.” God gave His only-begotten Son to be the Everlasting Father for all who believe and call upon His name for the forgiveness of their sins.
Just as the whole race was comprehended in Adam, God comprehended all humanity in His Son. Jesus has become the new Head, the Representative, the Father of the fallen race for all repentant sinners who believe.
Christ’s Victory Is Every Man’s Victory
The law of fatherhood applies not only negatively for bad, but positively for good. Children are constituted clean by the believing parent (1 Cor. 7:14).
Even in secular life, children participate in the happy fortune of the father. If he comes into possession of great wealth, the children rejoice, exclaiming, “We are rich!” If he buys a shiny new automobile, the children say, “We have a new car.” And they say all this as if it is their perfect right (as indeed it is), even though it was entirely their father’s work without their help, that procured it all.
When Jesus became the new Father for all who trust in Him as their Savior and Lord, He undertook the responsibility of keeping the law of God perfectly for us. As our Head and Representative, He rendered to the law an obedience that in every way measured with its infinite claims. We must see that before God and the bar of eternal justice, Christ stood as the representative for every sinner who believes and repents of his sins. All humanity was constituted in Him. Thus His obedience can be every man’s obedience who has faith in His blood. It was the same as if every believer had personally kept the law of God with the same infinite perfection as Jesus Christ. So Paul says, “For as by one man’s disobedience many [literally, the many, i.e., the whole race) were made [or constituted] sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many [the many) be made righteous.” Rom. 5:19. Paul in this epistle to the Romans is addressing the believing community with these words of comfort and assurance that all who trust in Christ "shall be made (declared) righteous".
Thus it is forever settled that only by the perfect obedience rendered personally by Jesus Christ, the believing repentant sinner is reckoned righteous in the sight of God. Just as we were made sinners by an act of disobedience outside of us, so we who believe are given right standing with God by an obedience outside of us – even by the personal doing and dying of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s obedience was more than His holy living. It included His obedience unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8).
When Christ consented to become our Father, He assumed the debt accruing to all our delinquencies. For instance, if children damage your property, you seek justice by dealing with their father. You may rightfully ask him to pay for all the damage done by his children.
What love caused Christ to become our Father, and thus to assume the full extent of our debt! As Luther put it:
The apostle Paul declares, “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if One died for all, then were all dead.” 2 Cor. 5:14. By this precious statement, the apostle declares that even though all the world is dead in sin, Christ's atoning death on the cross is freely offered as the atoning sacrifice for the whole world..Christ’s victory can be reckoned as every man’s victory if he will but believe and accept it. Christ has vanquished. This is the joyful news. Our everlasting Father has restored all that was lost in Adam for all who believe.
Justification by Faith in a Righteousness Outside of Us in Christ
The gospel is the good news of what God has done for all men in Jesus Christ if they will but believe. He has accomplished the believer's act of liberation in the Person of His Son. While we were ungodly, without strength, and enemies in our minds by wicked works, God wrought out our complete salvation in our great Head. He placed our sins upon Christ, punished them in Christ and put them away by Christ. So Paul declares to the believing community at Rome, “…[He] was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” Rom. 4:25. This means that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was God’s witness that He had provided payment of the debt of all men in Jesus Christ.
Addressing the Christian community at Colossi Paul assures them:
If there were one sin left for which atonement had not been made, if there were one transgression for which Christ had not made full satisfaction. He would still be a prisoner in Joseph’s tomb. But the gospel proclaims, “Christ is risen! The tomb is empty! God has redeemed you from all sin in Christ!” This is why the resurrection was the dynamic of the apostolic message.
Then in the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul continues, “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Rom. 5:18.
The resurrection is the witness that in Jesus Christ justification has been provided for the entire human family. Liberation and redemption are accomplished realities in Jesus Christ. For if we can confess that we were made sinners by the disobedience of our first father, how “much more” (to use Paul’s expression) should we now by faith confess that God has declared us righteous and accepted in the Beloved. When Jesus ascended to heaven, He ascended as the believer's Representative. It was the same as if we had gone into heaven. Did God receive Him? He received Him with great joy. He glorified Him with glory impossible to describe. He seated Him on His right hand far above the angels. But we must see that all this was done for humanity if it will but believe the report. As Isaiah 53:1 asks "Who has believed our report?" It was the same as if God had already done this for all of us. In Christ provision has been made for all humanity to be not only pardoned but promoted, not only justified but glorified. Access to this "peace with God" is granted to all who believe the gospel message by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
This is the good news of the gospel. It is good news for poor, struggling sinners. They need no longer look within their own experience for anything on which to base their hope of acceptance with God. God has already provided reconciiation to Himself for the whole rebellious world in the death of Jesus Christ. As surely as Jesus has been given to every lost sinner, just so surely has pardon and justification been provided for all men by God’s gracious Gift. Every repentant sinner may respond to the gospel in faith and full assurance, saying, “In the Lord have I righteousness and strength.” Isa. 45:24.
The declaration of what God has done in the uplifted Christ creates faith in the heart of a sinner. And it is by faith in the sinless life and atoning death of Christ that every repentant sinner may personally know the forgiveness of his sins. In Christ he has peace with God and the assurance of right standing with God on the basis of what His grace has already done for all men in Jesus Christ.