10 Things You Should Know about Justification by Faith

Justification by faith is a whole-Bible doctrine.

Some Christians may be surprised to learn that the doctrine of justification by faith is not only found in the New Testament but in the Old Testament. Genesis tells us that Abraham, in response to God’s promise, “believed the LORD, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Job sought to justify himself before God and in the end renounced his own righteousness (e.g., Job 32:2; 42:1–6). David was a man after God’s own heart, and yet he speaks of the blessing of justification apart from works: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1); “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2). Isaiah prophesies that the servant of the Lord will “make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). And Habakkuk teaches us that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), a truth which he also exemplified in his own life (Hab. 3:16–19). Finally, Jesus himself teaches this doctrine in his parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, a parable he told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).

Thus, justification by faith is a doctrine taught by the whole Bible. But it is most clearly taught in Paul’s letters, which leads to my second point:

Justification by faith is articulated most clearly by the apostle Paul.

Most agree that the doctrine of justification by faith is seen most clearly in Paul’s letters, and especially in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. Paul sums up the point of his letter to the Romans in Romans 1:17: “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed by faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteousness shall live by faith.’” Note that I have modified the ESV slightly, changing “from faith for faith” to “by faith to faith” in order to show how “by faith” is used two times in the original Greek of this verse. Justification by faith is at the center of Paul’s argument in this letter. Similarly, it is at the center of Paul’s argument in Galatians, which is summarized nicely in Galatians 2:16: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

In this latter statement, we can see how Paul often contrasts justification by faith with justification by works of the law, which leads to my third point:

Justification by faith is another way of saying we are not justified by our works.

Justification by faith is the opposite of justification by our works of obedience to the law. As Paul says it in Romans, “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). He also draws an enlightening contrast between the worker and the believer: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4–5). Recall that Jesus also teaches that the one who is justified before God is not the one who boasts in his or her own righteousness but the sinner who cries out to God for mercy. Isaiah prophesies that our justification will come about through the suffering of the servant for our transgressions. And David teaches that “no one living is righteous before you.” This means that none of us will be justified by our righteous works or our obedience to the law. Rather, we are justified through faith in Christ.

But wait. If we are justified by our faith, isn’t that still something we do? Does justification by faith throw the onus of our justification on ourselves? This question leads to my fourth point:

Justification by faith does not mean that our faith is the ultimate cause of our justification.

Once again, Paul clearly teaches that we are justified by our faith (e.g., Rom. 3:28). And yet he does not mean by this that our faith is the ultimate reason we are justified. The ultimate reason that we are justified is this: Christ “was delivered up [by God] for our trespasses and raised [by God] for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Why then does Paul say that we are justified by our faith? Because our faith is the thing that rests upon and unites us to the Christ who was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. Faith is belief in the truth of the gospel as well as trust in the God of the gospel. It is an act of the whole inner person (the heart, Rom. 10:9), which is directed toward the word of God, God himself, and especially toward the crucified and risen Christ. But if our faith is the inward act of the heart believing and trusting in Christ, does this mean our outward actions don’t matter at all for justification? This question leads to my fifth point:

Justification by faith affirms that good works necessarily follow from faith.

The doctrine of justification by faith excludes our works of obedience to the law as a means or cause of our justification before God. But it also affirms that acts of love and good works necessarily follow from our faith as the fruit of our faith. For example, Paul teaches that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). And James teaches that our faith is “completed by” our works (James 2:22), concluding that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). On the surface, this seems to correct and even contradict Paul’s teaching about justification by faith. But it is better to see James correcting a misrepresentation of Paul’s teaching—one that would say our works don’t matter at all (cf. Rom. 3:8). In contrast, James teaches that our works do matter. Genuine faith must result in good works. Paul also teaches that justification by faith results in the inclusion of the Gentile believers as part of God’s people, which leads to my next point:

Justification by faith results in the inclusion of all believers as God’s people.

One necessary conclusion from Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith is the idea that God will therefore justify both Jewish believers and Gentile believers. If “all have sinned” and “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23–24), then it follows that God is the God not only of Jewish believers but of Gentile believers. Paul makes this point in Romans 3:29–30: “Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” Again, in Romans 4:9 he asks “Is this blessing [of righteousness apart from works] then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” Paul concludes strongly in favor of the latter option. The inclusion of the Gentiles is a point rightly emphasized by the New Perspective on Paul, although scholars who hold this view tend to wrongly see Gentile inclusion as the essential meaning of justification by faith rather than as a necessary result of the doctrine of justification by faith.

We see then that justification by faith has corporate entailments. Our justification before God by faith results in the creation of a family of faith that includes all believers, Jewish or Gentile, slave or free. Nevertheless, the doctrine still speaks fundamentally about the individual’s standing before God, something which has been captured well by its theological formations in church history. This leads to my seventh point:

Justification by faith is a Protestant doctrine.

The doctrine of justification by faith as we think of it today was formulated by Protestant theologians at the time of the Reformation. One thinks immediately of the formula “justification by faith alone.” This is a way of capturing the Bible’s teaching that we cannot be justified before God by our own righteous obedience to the law but only by our faith in the satisfaction and merit of Christ on our behalf. “Faith alone” does not mean that works do not matter at all, because Protestant theologians are quick to affirm that while justification is “by faith alone,” this justifying faith is “never alone” but is necessarily accompanied by love and good works. A second important formulation for the doctrine of justification is imputation. Because we are united to Christ by the Spirit and by faith, our sins have been imputed to his account, and his righteousness has been imputed to our account. Imputation is an attempt to capture the truth of biblical statements like 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here Paul does not mean that God actually made Christ a sinner but that he imputed our sin to Christ’s account, just as, in the parallel statement, he has imputed his own righteousness to our account.

Thus, as our doctrine of the Trinity is associated with the formulations of the Council of Nicaea, so our doctrine of justification by faith is associated with the formulations of the Protestant Reformation. But this does not mean that ancient Christians did not believe or experience the doctrine, which leads to my eight point:

Justification by faith is an ancient Christian doctrine.

The formal articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith stems from the Reformation of the western church beginning in the sixteenth century. But the doctrine of justification by faith had been taught and experienced by Christians long before the Reformation. We have already seen this in the Bible, but we also read of this doctrine in the church fathers. For example, in the second or third century defense of Christianity called the Epistle to Diognetus, we find this beautiful passage: “He [God] did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!” (Diogn. 9:2–5).

One can see here that justification by faith, as J. I. Packer says in his classic article on the subject, is a doctrine not only to be articulated but to be experienced. But unfortunately, it is also a doctrine that has been surrounded by controversy, which leads to my ninth point:

Justification by faith is an embattled doctrine.

It seems that the doctrine justification by faith often finds itself in the midst of controversy. Paul speaks of it in his conflict with false teachers who were giving the Galatians a hard time about not being circumcised. And Protestant theologians formally articulated it in their attempt to reform the Western church. We could say then it is a “polemic” doctrine, in that it is actively attacking false doctrine; but Paul and the Reformers were also defending the truth of the gospel—the gospel Paul had received from God (Gal. 1:11–12), and the gospel the Reformers received from Holy Scripture. Today, among evangelicals, the heirs of English reformation, this doctrine is still often embattled. This can be discouraging, especially in an era where it seems that conflict is waiting around every corner. But perhaps it can also be encouraging that we are not the first ones to be in conflict over this doctrine. Indeed, the most important doctrines in the history of the church are typically forged in the context of controversy.

But my last point reminds us that the articulation, experience, and even controversy of justification are worth it, because:

Justification by faith brings glory to God.

There is something about justification by faith that gives particular glory to God. Paul says this of Abraham’s faith: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20–21). The promise of God in the gospel is that he will justify the ungodly and even bring the dead to life in Christ. Thus, when we, like Abraham, acknowledge the gospel to be true and trust that God will do it, we give him particular glory through Jesus Christ. This is why he says that the great aim of hearing the gospel, believing it, and receiving the Spirit as the down-payment of our future inheritance is all “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14).

Once again we see that justification by faith does not draw attention to ourselves and our great faith but rather to Christ and God’s great work of redemption through him. “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

Kevin W. McFadden is the author of Faith in the Son of God: The Place of Christ-Oriented Faith within Pauline Theology.

How Do I Lead Someone To Christ?

How do I lead someone to Christ? I love this question. It comes from a listener named Brooke.

“Pastor John, hello! For our online church services during the coronavirus season, I volunteered to reach out to people who have contacted us to let us know that they want to trust in Christ, yet I don’t really know how to do this. I’ve grown up seeing people walked through a written prayer. But I wrestle with the doctrine behind the idea that you can simply ‘pray this prayer,’ and you’re good. When someone says they’re ready to accept Christ, how do you lead them?”

Great question. Oh, great question. Oh, that every Christian were ready and eager to declare the good news and to lead people into saving faith! So, thanks for the question. It’s very good for John Piper to go back and rehearse the basics of the gospel and the practicalities of a phone call like this or a Zoom chat or sitting across the table six feet apart, maybe, to share the gospel.

It’s helpful to have a simple plan. If we were all God, we wouldn’t need to have a simple plan; we could just overflow spontaneously. But we’re not God. The picture I would like to use for my simple plan is that we all need four treasure chests, and I call them treasure chests because they’re just packed with more than we could share at any given time, and that’s good. We don’t need to share everything in every treasure chest all the time. The reason I choose the term treasure chest is because Jesus said bumping into the kingdom and being ready to walk into the kingdom and be saved is like a man who stumbles across a treasure chest hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). Our job as shepherds that lead new sheep into the fold is to unpack treasures.

Hard and Happy Way

Before I give you my four treasure chests that you put in front of you on the table when you’re talking or on the phone, the first thing I would say to a person — a total stranger, say, that I’ve just called to follow up with — would be something like this: “I am so excited, because you are about to enter into the hardest and happiest way of life that there is.” Now, they might be puzzled by that statement, and it might issue in a little conversation, but I think it strikes a very crucial balance: hard and happy, hard and happy.

You could explain from Psalm 37:4 that it’s a happy way: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” The Lord is worthy of our joy; he wants us to be happy in him. “In [his] presence there is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). And from Matthew 16:24, you might explain that Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” And you might say a few words about how taking up the cross is not a vacation. It’s where you die; it’s where you suffer. In other words, you will say to them, “Jesus will lead you through some very hard things.” “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Now, the reason for starting that way is the double truth — and they’re both so crucial — that the gospel is spectacularly good news. I mean, it’s good news, news, news, news — really good, good, good news. It’s the best news in the world. And we need to strike that note loud and clear: “I am about to tell you the best news in the world.” And Jesus said in Luke 14:28–33 to be sure to count the cost. You don’t want to go out against an army you can’t beat, and you don’t want to build a tower you can’t finish. You need to tell everybody this involves total devotion to Jesus Christ who was crucified.

So, that’s one possible way of starting the conversation: happy and hard. And you can follow up later with lots more about what that means, because I think so many people are drawn into the Christian life with some naïve prosperity notion that things are going to get better for them, when in fact they might get worse in many ways — even though the joy’s going to go down deeper than they ever imagined.

Four Treasure Chests of Truth

Then I would begin to unpack my four treasure chests of biblical truth. There are four great realities that you need to know in order to be saved by Jesus Christ. And that’s what you want: you want to close with Christ: receive Christ, believe Christ, engage with Christ, have Christ. And there are four things you need to know. And you can name your four chests with four words, and here’s the basic, simple plan:

1. God
2. Sin
3. Christ
4. Faith

I’ve remembered those for decades. Oh, how they have served me so well: God, sin, Christ, faith. Those are my four chests of truth, and I call them treasure chests because every chest has dozens of passages of Scripture and dozens of ways to talk about God and sin and Christ and faith. And I don’t want to give the impression that there’s a one-size-fits-all presentation of the gospel. You have four chests there, full of Bible truth, and our job is to trust the Spirit to guide us, and then take out of each chest one or two Scriptures to show those riches to your new friend. So, let’s just walk through them real quick.

1. Begin with truth about God.

Everything starts with God. Everything starts with the greatness of God, the glory of God. You might start with his holiness or his justice, because what we need to clarify here in this first treasure chest is that everything else is not going to make any sense if we don’t have some sense of who God is and what he’s like, and how sin, which we’re going to talk about in treasure chest #2, is against God — not just against people. And we can’t do that if we don’t know who God is.

I like to start with God’s glory because Paul’s going to define sin as a falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). So, I would like to say to my friend Isaiah 43:6–7:

Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.

Isaiah 43:6–7

And I would say to them, “You were created, you exist, to glorify God — to make God look glorious. You were created to show God’s glory, his greatness, his beauty, his worth. That’s our duty.” First Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

That’s treasure chest #1.

2. Explain truth about sin.

All of us have failed to live for the glory of God. You have, I have, everybody has. Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” — which I think means we have exchanged the glory of God for images (Romans 1:23). All of us have preferred other things to God, and so we’ve made the glory of God look worthless. We’ve dishonored God in so many ways, which means we’ve chosen the way of death. Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And sin isn’t just things we do; it’s the way we are. We are “by nature,” Paul said in Ephesians 2:3, “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” None of us escapes this condition; none of us escapes the penalty of death and judgment and hell. Jesus said in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

So, without salvation we’re all sinful by nature, and we’re all under God’s wrath. That’s treasure chest #2.

3. Proclaim truth about Christ.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15)

That’s why this phone call is happening. Everything up until now is designed to make Christ and his way of salvation appear as great and beautiful and wonderful as they really are. God sent his Son, his divine, eternal Son, to bear the punishment we deserve. This is the heart of everything. This is the most glorious news in the world. There’s no way we can save ourselves from our sin and from his wrath.

So, here’s the wonder. Romans 8:3: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” God condemned sin; he punished sin. The death of Jesus, his Son, is our punishment. All the sins of all those who would ever be united to Christ by faith were punished in Jesus. So, he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). This is spectacular news: no more guilt, no more punishment, no more wrath, no more condemnation. Eternal life, peace with God forever. Romans 6:23: “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That’s treasure chest #3: Christ.

4. Finish with truth about faith.

I think it helps at every point, by the way, to make these as personal as possible from your own experience. I might say, “My favorite verse in the Bible to help explain how to receive all of this is Ephesians 2:8–9: ‘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.’”

In other words, you can’t work for your salvation. You can’t earn it; it’s a free gift. You can’t deserve it; it comes from God’s grace or God’s love. Just a few verses earlier, it says, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4–5).

That means that even your faith is a gift of God right now in this moment. If you are reaching out to take Christ, if you are ready to have him as your Savior and Lord and the Treasure of your life, you are a miracle. God has made you alive; it’s called new birth. Trust him, speak to him, tell him all your heart. Declare your faith to him, welcome him as your friend.

Prayer and the Word

And you might ask at this point, “Do you have any questions?” Of course, they’re going to have questions. You have to decide how long you’re going to talk, and you might draw things to a close either by inviting them to pray or giving them the option of dealing with God in private. I’ve done it both ways. Send them away to pray: I’ve said, “You need to get alone with God and deal with him on the basis of everything you’ve heard, so that I don’t do any manipulating here.” And I remember one wonderful night, at about eleven o’clock in my office, a man who was just so ready, and I was not about to send him away because he was just saying, “Oh, I want to get this over.” And oh my, it was glorious the way it went over. But I didn’t put words in his mouth. I mean, I’ve already put a hundred words in his mouth by sharing the gospel.

You’ll suggest some texts that they should read when they hang up, maybe some places to go in the Bible, giving them particular Scriptures. You may welcome them into a discipling relationship with yourself or with somebody else your church has arranged or invite them to a class. You’ll want to encourage them to think about baptism and prepare for baptism in due time. And you’re going to warn them that the devil is real and will put them to the test. You’re going to say, “Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:9).

And you’re going to leave them with a promise. And oh my, there are so many you could choose. Maybe you’ll leave them like this. Hebrews 13:5–6:

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

Hebrews 13:5–6


The Night Before Good Friday

If you knew tomorrow was your last day on earth, what would you do?

I’m sure that most of us would spend our remaining moments with our family and loved ones, we would go somewhere peaceful and private. We would try to relish every moment, whilst reliving every precious memory and try to leave nothing left unsaid.

A little over two thousand years ago, Jesus had a night like this.

The night before he died, after the Last Supper, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives to pray. The Gospel of Luke records that Jesus’s anguish was so great that he sweated blood. Jesus knew what was about to come and the clock was running out of time. It would be the last time he had a moment with his disciples before his death.

The Gospel of John tells us that right before he was arrested, and subsequently tried and crucified, Jesus prayed a long prayer. In fact, it’s the longest prayer recorded in the New Testament. In the “The High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus, though completely aware of his coming death focused more on his disciples and those who will believe through their Gospels than on himself. His chief request to the Father is that he would make them one.

“Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your Name, the name you gave Me, so that they may be one as we are one,” prays Jesus for his disciples (John 17:11). He knew his impending death would be their greatest trial. Their faith would be tested like it had never been tested before, and in that moment the success of the early church would hinge on their unity.

But Jesus was also looking beyond those around him that night, to those who would put their faith in him through the ages.

“My prayer is not for them alone,” continues Jesus. “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

Even then, at that agonizing hour, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that the credibility of the cross and the empty tomb would be contingent on the unity of the church. Without unity, the church loses its ability to effectively communicate the message of the gospel.

Division abounds in almost every country in the world these days. Sadly, it exists even between Christians and in most churches. We’ve allowed politics and theology to divide and fragment us. This isn’t what Jesus intended for his followers.

I firmly believe unity in this world begins in the church. It’s in the church where any dividing barrier — whether racial, political or social — should come down. As Billy Graham would say, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

In this time of great division, the church must lead the way in modeling unity. That’s what Jesus asked of us the night before Good Friday.

Adapted From: