4 Min Read


Justification is a principal benefit of redemption that Christ secured for the elect. In justification, God declares sinners righteous in His sight in the divine law court. According to Scripture and the Reformed tradition, justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In justification, God forgives the sins of His people and imputes Christ’s righteousness—puts it on their accounts before Him—to them solely on the basis of Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death, and resurrection. A one-time act of God, justification is something a believer can never lose. Faith is the singular instrument of justification. God does not require any other gracious operation on the part of those He justifies except faith, which rests on and receives Christ alone for one’s righteousness. Though justification is accompanied by other saving acts and works of God, it remains a distinct blessing of redemption. On judgment day, believers’ sanctification will evidence their justification, as they will be openly vindicated before men and angels. Holiness and good works will not be the reason that God declares a believer righteous, but these things will prove that God has declared that person righteous in Christ because those who have been justified bear spiritual fruit. In other words, justification logically precedes sanctification. The New Testament includes well-reasoned defenses of the doctrine of justification from the attacks of false teachers. In church history, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was central to the Protestant Reformers in their refutation of the false gospel of Roman Catholicism. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the doctrine of justification by faith alone again became a central point of theological controversy on account of the teaching of proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul.


Justification is one of the central benefits of redemption that God applies to believers on the basis of Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death, and resurrection from the dead. In justification, ungodly and guilty men and women are counted righteous before God (Rom. 4:5). This means that God forgives their sins and accepts them as righteous in His sight on the basis of the saving work of Jesus alone (Rom. 4:6–8). Scripture is clear that individuals are justified by faith alone in Christ alone (Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9). The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides the most succinct definition of the doctrine of justification, when it states, “Justification is 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 alone” (Q&A 33).

Justification is a once-for-all, nonrepeatable act of God. It is distinct, therefore, from progressive sanctification, which is an ongoing work of God’s grace. Once God accepts a sinner on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, that person can never lose his right standing before God.

Faith is the alone instrument of justification because “faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (WSC 36). While God requires that sinners believe in Christ for their justification, the exercise of faith is a gift of God’s grace to the elect. Faith alone justifies, even though it is accompanied by other graces (e.g., love, affections, repentance, etc). Faith unites a sinner to Christ, thus enabling God to impute (i.e., credit or account) Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

The doctrine of justification has constantly been subject to the attacks of false teachers. The Apostle Paul confronted false teaching about justification in both his letter to the Romans and in his letter to the Galatians. In Romans, Paul sets the doctrine of justification by faith alone in contrast to the works-righteousness of the Judaism of his day. In Galatians, certain false teachers had slipped into the church in order to disturb the faith of new converts by insisting that one needs to believe in Christ and keep the law to be justified. The Apostle pronounced the strongest possible condemnation on such a false gospel (Gal. 1:8). These attacks on the doctrine of justification by faith alone provided an opportunity for the Apostle to address the Old Testament background of this doctrine and the intricacies of it in redemptive history.

Reformed theologians have long emphasized that regeneration logically precedes faith, since no one is able to believe in Christ until God the Holy Spirit takes away a heart of stone and gives them a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). Nevertheless, this renewed heart of love does not justify a sinner because it can never take away the guilt of the sinner’s standing before God. Fallen in Adam, all mankind inherited the guilt and corruption of Adam’s sin from birth. Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ came into the world as the last Adam—the second representative of God’s people. In the covenant of grace, Christ deals with the guilt and corruption of Adam’s sin by dying on the cross. He accomplishes all that Adam failed to accomplish in the covenant of works by establishing a perfect righteousness for those who would believe in Him. The sinless life and atoning death of Jesus is the basis of the believer’s justification.

Believers benefit from justification by faith alone in a number of significant ways. The Apostle makes it clear that it is the grounds of a believer’s joy and peace in God as well as of their access to God (Rom. 5:1–2, 8:1). Additionally, believers’ growth in grace is dependent, in part, on knowing that they have been justified in Christ. If professing believers doubt whether or not God has freely accepted them by His grace in Christ, they will inevitably slide into a forms of legalism, a fleshly mode of performance for their both their sanctification and justification.

The Protestant Reformation involved a rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Though the Reformers labored for the defense and propagation of other important biblical truths—in contrast to the perversion of the Roman Catholic Church—matters of soteriology lay at the center of their contentions with their Roman Catholic counterparts. Commonly attributed to Martin Luther, the saying articulus iustificationis dicitur articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls) captures the essence of the Reformation’s defense of this central doctrine.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul gained increasing influence in certain Protestant circles. Spearheaded by the writings of men such as E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright, proponents of the NPP insisted that the Reformers misunderstood Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians. Wright, in particular, has been influential in conservative Protestantism. Wright denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, insisting that the Apostle was referring to Christ’s faithfulness and the impartation of His righteousness to believers. Wright teaches that individuals will be justified on the last day on the basis of their faith in Christ, together with their Spirit-wrought good works. An emphasis on a “eschatological justification on the basis of works” runs counter to biblical teaching about the once-for-all nature of justification. It also denies the biblical teaching about Jesus and His works as the sole basis of a believer’s justification. Rather than supporting the biblical teaching of justification, proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul essentially promote a revisionist version of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith plus works.


One of the key terms in the phrase ‘justification by faith’ is the word by, which signals that faith is the means or tool that links us to Christ and His benefits. The concept indicates that faith is the ‘instrumental’ cause of our justification. What is in view in the Protestant formulation is a distinction from the Roman Catholic view of the instrumental cause. Rome declares the sacrament of baptism in the first instance and penance in the second instance to be the instrumental causes of justification. So, the dispute of what instrument is the basis by which we are justified was and remains critical to the classical dispute between Rome and Protestantism. The Protestant view, following Paul’s teaching in the New Testament, is that faith is the sole instrument by which we are linked to Christ.

R.C. Sproul

Tilting at Scarecrows

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