The Doctrine of Justification by Faith: Understanding So Great a Salvation

INTRODUCTION – Justification defines our relationship with God. The purity of the gospel depends upon an accurate understanding of justification by grace through faith.

The doctrine of justification by faith has not been given the central place it deserves. In his book, The dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace describes the problem. “Only a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives. Many have so light an apprehension of God’s holiness and of the extent and guilt of their sin that consciously they see little need for justification, although below the surface of their lives they are deeply guilt-ridden and insecure.”

Jerry Bridges also exposes the same problem indicating that the doctrine of justification by faith has been relegated to the sphere of the unbeliever only. When that happens, says Bridges, Christians turn from grace to personal performance as the basis for Christian living (The Discipline of Grace).

In Evangelicalism today, the doctrine of justification has been exegeted in statements of faith, but the dynamic relationships that flow from the doctrine have not been adequately explained.

Application - Tozer understood the value of justification for daily living. He extolled the liberty God supplies in justification. He reminds us that when justification is appropriated, the believer is liberated from sterile legalism, from unavailing self-effort and from the paralyzing fear of condemnation. Tozer adds that the doctrine of justification in Christ is not simply a legal declaration, it is an ongoing revealer of the infinite riches of the Godhead.



When our first parents sinned, the whole human race was plunged into total depravity (sin ruled every human faculty, man became dead to God, Ephesians 2:1-3). By Adam’s one act of disobedience, all of his progeny were constituted sinners. Adam’s descendants are sinful by nature, by practice, by preference, by birth and by decree.

God has given a legal PRONOUNCEMENT about the sinful state of mankind (Rom. 3:9, 10ff; 3:23; 5:12). This pronouncement is a legal declaration, a verdict about every member of the human race. It is a judicial pronouncement about our legal standing before God.

Every unbeliever has a legal standing before God of CONDEMNATION (John 3:36; Rom. 5:16,18; Mark 16:16). In heaven’s sight, all unsaved people are in a state of condemnation, liable to eternal punishment (Gal. 3:22).

No man or woman has the power to change that standing before God. The unbeliever cannot lessen his guilt, nor offset it with works, nor work his way out of condemnation.


Into this human condition of ruin, crisis and condemnation comes the glorious brilliance of the gospel. The extraordinary message of the good news is that through Christ there is a second legal pronouncement from the God of the universe. The second pronouncement has superceded the first legal declaration of universal guilt and condemnation. Justification is that second legal declaration. It overturns the first pronouncement for those who believe.

Romans 1:16,17 answers the question, “How can sinful man be just and righteous in God’s sight?” (See Williams Translation, “For in the good news God’s way of man’s right standing with Him is uncovered.”)

Justification is a VERDICT about us (Rom. 3:22-28). It is declaration takes place in the courtroom of God, before the throne of God, at the justice bar of God, whereby the believer is declared judicially righteous.

Justification is a legal DECLARATION by God in HEAVEN concerning a man, that he stands RIGHTEOUS in God’s sight (Rom. 5:18,19; 3:26; 4:5; 8:33ff).

The righteousness God looks upon when He justifies the believer is resident inCHRIST JESUS (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 4:23-25).

Application – The good news of the gospel is only received as tidings of joy by the person who has felt to some degree the crushing weight of his own sin. The gospel is only good news to a person who is impressed with his own ill desert and guilt before God. God prepares a man for salvation by convincing him of his slavery to sin and the hopelessness of dependence upon self. The awakened sinner respects God’s justice and has begun to quake at the condemnation of God’s law. (For further study – Consider what errors stem from the idea that justification is a process instead of an instantaneous legal pronouncement.)


Salvation is always a sovereignly given gift of God’s grace to those who believe (Eph. 2:8,9). Only those who relinquish all claims to goodness and acknowledge they are ungodly are candidates for justification (Rom. 4:5; Luke 5:32).

In justification, God takes His own righteousness and credits it to the believer. Faith cannot be a meritorious work, it is simply the channel which receives God’s righteousness (Rom. 4:3).

God justifies us by FAITH alone (Gal. 2:15-21). God justifies the person who looks away from himself and trusts in CHRIST ALONE for righteousness (Titus 3:5-7; Rom. 4:4,5).

Application – Saving faith never looks upon itself as having performed a meritorious work. Beware when the seeker asks, “What is faith, that I may do it?”

When a person exercises saving faith, it is because Holy Spirit has brought him to end of self and led him to the risen Christ. The “prepared” sinner despairs of being able to provide any part of his salvation.

Saving faith is by nature self-renouncing. It judges self and condemns self. It finds the resources of self to be bankrupt. It looks away from self and in utter dependence looks upon Another.


Right standing or justification is only by reason of our union with Christ. By union with Christ, the believer is given right standing as a gift of grace. The Holy Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s death and life to the one who trusts Christ.

God’s legal basis for justifying the ungodly is CHRIST’S FINISHED WORK of substitution and redemption (2 Cor. 5:19-21; Is. 53:5,6; Gal. 3:13). The ground of (our) justification is not the believer’s faith, but the REDEMPTION that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24).

Application – What errors may develop if a person considers his faith to be the foundation that supports his justification?


Scripture joins the justice of God in the cross to the justice of God in our justification. The argument of the Apostle in Romans 3:25-31 is that the justice of God is upheld and vindicated when sinners receive forgiveness.

Along with Paul, every Christian must emphasize that the justice of God is magnified in the doctrine of justification. When the sinner is pardoned and declared righteous (justified), it is NOT because God has exercised leniency or clemency! God is, “Just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). God upholds His own immutable law when He justifies he ungodly.

The justice of God is made manifest in three great imputations. To impute is to ascribe or attribute wickedness or merit to another person. When something isimputed to a person, it is a matter of counting or reckoning to their account. (Imputation is the heart of justification. God declares the repentant sinner righteous and does not count his sins against him because He covers him with the righteousness of Christ the moment he places faith in Christ.)

The Three Great Imputations:

O R I G I N A L S I N (The First Pronouncement)

1.) The IMPUTATION of Adam’s sin to his descendants (Rom. 5:12).

J U S T I F I C A T I O N B Y F A I T H (The Second Pronouncement)

2.) The IMPUTATION of the sin of the elect to Christ (1 Pet. 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:21).

3.) The IMPUTATION of Christ’s righteousness to the elect (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:21-26).

The doctrine of justification by faith directly involves the second and third of these great imputations. In justification, there is both the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of righteousness. In order to be regarded just in the sight of God’s law, there must be both a positive righteousness and an absence of transgressions. Justification accomplishes both for the believing sinner.

Romans 5:12-21 - The same divinely ordained principle that allowed Adam to represent his race also provides that Christ be the representative of all those who would believe upon Him. This is the reason why Christ is referred to as “the last Adam,” (1 Cor. 15:45).

Paul lifts up God’s love and grace in Romans 5 as he sets forth Christ’s victorious work of representing His people. In that chapter, the Apostle makes it clear that every man stands either in Christ or in Adam as representative. Those in Adam remain under a reign of death. Those in Christ are under the reign of grace and life.

Application - In our horizontal relationships we may demonstrate virtues that over time deepen our commitment with others. We gain the trust of others, we win their affection, we earn their respect and we prove our faithfulness and usefulness. BUT, in our vertical relationship with the Lord, right-relatedness is completely a gift of God’s grace.

Status, favor, sustenance and right standing are freely poured out upon the believer as gifts in consequence of our union with Christ. All of God’s subsequent dealings with us are grounded upon this fact of free grace. We are to stand in the grace of God and exult in it (1 Pet. 5:12; Rom. 5:2).

In personal relationships it is difficult to express love and trust if we do not know where we stand with an individual. Many Christians face a similar dilemma with the Lord of Hosts. They seem unable to clearly think through the most central issue: “What has God done with my sin and guilt?” It is vital that the saint learn how to take hold of the sufficiency of Christ as his sin-bearing Substitute.

God forgives by “non-imputation,” and He accepts into favor by the imputation of His own righteousness (Rom. 4:5-8). The maturing believer practices this “gospel reasoning” as he does the accounting of his conscience and soul. The more biblically he thinks, the more inclined he is to receive God’s love and comfort and to seek His fellowship. (Remember, the whole idea of a righteousness that is a gift from God is contrary to all our inherited nature.)


Although the nature of justification is that of a forensic declaration, there are four biblical dimensions of justification that safeguard it from distortion.

Heresies related to salvation inevitably exclude or replace at least one of the four dimensions.

1.) We are justified JUDICIALLY by God (Rom. 3:26,30; 8:30,33). It is a declaration that is instantaneous and forensic, taking place in the throne room of God.

2.) We are justified MERITORIOUSLY by Christ (Rom. 3:24; 4:23,25; 5:8,9; 10:4). Our right standing is grounded upon the redemptive work of Christ alone.

3.) We are justified MEDIATELY by faith (Rom. 1:17; 3:26,30; Gal. 2:16, 3:24). Sinful man cannot contribute to his justification. It can only be received as a gift of God’s grace. Faith is the channel through which it is received.

4.) We are justified EVIDENTIALLY by works (James 2:21-25; 1 Jn. 2:4,15,19, 3:6-10,24; 4:8,20). (Works justify us from the accusations of men who say that our claims of salvation are false. The fruit of faith is good works. In contrast to a hypocritical faith, true faith purifies the heart and is made manifest in a life of integrity.)


God’s grace in Christ is the great revealer of the divine attributes (Eph. 1:6,12,14). The satanic lie of Eden planted the notion in the heart of man that God’s glory and our highest good are antithetical to one another.

Through the Person and work of Christ, the Agent of God’s justifying love, light pierces into the darkened understanding of man, reversing the lie (2 Cor. 4:4-6). By way of the gospel, men have the Edenic lie expunged. Through the grace of God in the gospel, the believer comes to understand that God has joined His glory to our highest good. Those who understand that gracious fact can say that it isrational to abandon oneself to God in Christ (Rom. 12:1).