Lecture 5, Faith Alone (Part 2):

The book of Romans says that we are altogether unrighteous, therefore the grave awaits us. So what can we do? Is there a way to righteousness? How can someone be declared righteous by God? In this message, Dr. Sproul teaches us the most glorious and Christ honoring way, as he affirms that salvation is by “Faith Alone.”

Message Transcript

We have been addressing the question, What is Reformed theology? In our last session, we gave a brief introduction to the chief article of historical evangelical theology, which is embraced by Reformed theology as well as all other Protestant denominations historically, namely, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This was the central issue of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

I want to go on with our exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We’ve already looked at the meaning of the word justification, and we spent time on the rest of the formula, justification by faith alone. I want to look at the particular elements of this formula.

The Etymology of Justification

To recap, the term justification means that act by which God declares sinners to be just in His sight. Part of the controversy of the sixteenth century rested on the etymological derivation of the word justification. Our English word justification comes from the Latin justificare.

In the medieval church, the doctrine of justification began to be expounded in light of the background of the Latin Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, rather than on the basis of the Greek New Testament. The problem that emerged as early as St. Augustine was that the term justificare in the old Roman judicial system meant “to make righteous.” The idea began to emerge that God would never declare somebody to be righteous until He had first actually made them righteous in some manner. Whereas, according to the Reformers, the Greek New Testament word dikaiosynē has to do with this accounting or reckoning or deeming people to be righteous before they actually become righteous.

A Debate about Means

It is also important to say that part of the debate over justification focused on how justification comes to pass. When we use the formula justification by faith, we’re using a form of speech, the word by. In our language, this is a dative word and refers to the dative of means or, more specifically, the instrumental dative. Part of the debate of the sixteenth century focused on the question of the instrumental cause or means by which justification takes place.

In the Roman Catholic Church, justification is seen as requiring faith, at least in the case of adults. Initially, however, justification is accomplished through what Rome calls the instrumental cause of baptism. That is, in the sacrament of baptism, grace is infused into the soul. The infusion or pouring in of this grace into a human soul is saving grace. As a person receives this infusion of grace as an infant, they are placed in a state of grace. They are kept in that state of grace unless or until the person commits a sin so grievous that it is called mortal sin.

Mortal sin is defined as mortal rather than venial because it is a sin so serious that it kills the grace that is in the soul. So, a person can grow to adulthood, commit a mortal sin, and still have faith, but lose the grace of justification. The person who is in a state of mortal sin can still have true faith and not be justified. That person, in order to be restored to a state of grace, has to come through what the Council of Trent called “the second plank of justification for those who have made shipwreck of their souls.”

The “Second Plank” of Justification

The “second plank” of justification is defined by the Roman Catholic Church as the sacrament of penance. In a very real sense, the whole controversy in the sixteenth century centered around the sacrament of penance.

The indulgence controversy that arose in Germany when Tetzel was going around peddling his indulgences was all linked to the church’s doctrine of the sacrament of penance, which includes several elements. For a person who had committed mortal sin to be restored to the state of salvation—in other words, to regain justification—they had to avail themselves of the sacrament of penance, which was performed by the church.

Penance had several elements to it, the first of which was sacramental confession. The person had to go to the priest and confess his sins: “Father I have sinned. I’ve done such and such.”

Also included in the sacrament of penance was priestly absolution. After the penitent person had done his act of contrition and everything that the church requires, the priest said, “Te absolvo—I absolve you of your sins.”

The next dimension of penance that was required for a person to be restored to a state of grace was to perform works of satisfaction. So, faith was required, confession was required, priestly absolution was required, and works of satisfaction were required.

The Roman Catholic Church was very careful at this point to say that these works of satisfaction did not provide what they call “condign” merit—merit that is so virtuous and meritorious that it would impose an obligation upon a just God to reward the person. Rather, it was a lesser kind of merit that Rome defined as “congruous” merit, meritum de congruo. Congruous merit is real merit, but it rests upon the prior reception of grace. It is a merit that is less than condign merit, but it is meritorious enough to make it fitting or congruous for God to restore a person to justification.

So, the means by which justification took place was chiefly sacramentally. In the first instance through baptism; in the second instance through the sacrament of penance.

The Instrumental Cause of Justification

When the Reformers talked about the instrumental cause of justification, they were borrowing from the language of the church and of tradition, which has its roots in Aristotle’s fine distinctions about various types of causes.

Aristotle defined the instrumental cause as that through which a work was performed. His analogy was that of a sculptor who is making a piece of sculpture. If he is shaping a piece of rock or wood into a statue, the instrumental cause of his work would be his chisel, which is the tool or instrument that he uses to accomplish his purpose.

The Reformers said that the instrumental cause of justification is faith. Faith is the means by which the righteousness of Christ is given to us.

Infusion vs. Imputation

This raises another issue that, perhaps more than any other point of the dispute, was the center of the controversy—the debate between grace that comes through infusion and grace that comes through imputation.

Roman Catholicism: Infusion

The infusion of grace was the Roman Catholic view that, through the sacraments, grace is quantitatively infused or poured into the soul of the person. As a result, that person has the righteousness of Christ poured into the individual’s soul. Without that righteousness of Christ, there is no justification.

Protestants, I am sorry to say, have often slandered the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants sometimes say that the difference between historic Protestantism and historic Catholicism is that Protestants believe we’re justified by faith and Roman Catholics believe we’re justified by works, as if there was no need for the work of Jesus Christ. That’s pure slander to the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church has always taught that the work of Christ is absolutely essential for our salvation.

The question is, How does the merit of Jesus Christ become appropriated to me? How does it benefit me?

Rome answers this question with the sacramental infusion of the righteousness of Christ into the individual soul. Then, the individual has to cooperate with and assent to this infused grace. The person has to cooperate to such a degree that he or she becomes actually righteous, so that, as Trent declares, true righteousness inheres within the individual.

This righteousness comes through the help and assistance of the grace of Christ—it’s not on their own strength—the person cooperates with it. Once the infused grace of Christ is given to the soul and the sinner cooperates with it to a degree, the sinner becomes actually righteous. Then and only then will God declare that person righteous.

That’s one of the reasons why Rome has to have a doctrine of purgatory with thousands of years of cleansing and purging to continue working in the soul until that person becomes holy enough to be declared just by God.

Protestantism: Imputation

Protestants believe that something is infused into the Christian at the time of his conversion—the inpouring of God the Holy Spirit who works within us to help us with our growth and sanctification. But with respect to justification, the Protestant view is that God justifies those who have faith by imputation.

Imputation involves a transfer from one person’s account to another, so that the righteousness of Jesus is transferred, in God’s sight, to the believer’s account. When God looks at the believer, in legal terms, He doesn’t see the believer’s sin. Rather, He views that person under the covering of the righteousness of Christ.

A Transfer of Guilt

This concept of imputation has two dimensions to it. First, the atonement is seen as being central to our salvation because, when Jesus dies on the cross, He dies as a substitute for us. He dies vicariously as the sin-bearer of Israel, as the Lamb without blemish to whom God imputes the sins of the people. In the Old Testament drama of the Day of Atonement, the priest would lay his hands upon the scapegoat, signifying a symbolic transfer of the people’s guilt to the victim, the scapegoat, who would be driven out of the presence of God.

So, in terms of the New Testament view of the cross, Christ is the Suffering Servant who bears the sins of His people, not because He becomes inherently wicked in His own humanity, but rather because He is a substitute for us, and God transfers our guilt to Him. When Christ dies on the cross, He is taking the negative judgment, the wrath of God, to satisfy God’s judgment. God is punishing our sins when He punishes Christ, because He has transferred our sins to Him.

I have often said that if you ask a six-year-old child in Sunday school, “What did Jesus do for you?” the child has learned enough in Sunday school to answer by saying, “Jesus died on the cross for my sins.” Now, that is true, but what else?

If all it would take to justify the ungodly is for Jesus to pay the negative penalty of the curse of God against evil, He could have come down from heaven, gone directly to the cross, and then returned in glory. But instead, He was born of a woman. He submitted to the law. His whole life was lived in rigorous obedience to every point of every requirement that God gives to His people. Why? Why did He say to John, “Baptize Me; it is necessary to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15)? This is where the second dimension of imputation comes in.

A Transfer of Righteousness

The Reformers understood the place of the active obedience of Christ. Christ not only paid the negative penalty for our sins, but He positively achieved perfect righteousness.

You see, if all He did was pay for our guilt, that would simply put us back to square one, to the status Adam had before the fall. We would be innocent in the sense of not bearing any sin, but we would have no positive obedience to commend ourselves before God’s justice. There would be no basis for a righteous granting of reward—the granting of eternal life and of heaven.

But Christ not only died for us; He lived for us. That is the whole point of the gospel. Not only are my sins transferred to Him on the cross, but His perfect righteousness is transferred to me whenever I put my trust in Him.

So, when God judges us and declares us just, He does so because Christ is just and because we are in Christ by faith. That’s the reason why the instrumental cause of justification is faith, because faith is the tool or instrument that links us to Christ.

An Alien Righteousness

Luther insisted that the righteousness by which sinners are justified is what he called a justitium alienum. It is a foreign justice or an alien righteousness, a righteousness that Luther said is extra nos—outside of us.

If I have to wait before true righteousness manifests itself perfectly inside of me, how long will I have to wait to be justified? I’ll have to wait forever. But the good news of the gospel is that God justifies the ungodly freely by giving to all who believe a righteousness that is, properly speaking, not their own. It is somebody else’s righteousness. It is the righteousness of Christ that alone meets the standard of God’s perfect judgment.

When we say that justification is by faith alone, this is mere shorthand for saying that justification is by Christ alone. The ground of our justification is the righteous merit of Christ, who alone has perfect justice in the sight of God, and it is given to us freely when we believe.

So, all that is left for us to look at in this brief exposition is the question, What do we mean that we’re justified by faith?

Saving Faith

James tells us: “You believe in God, you do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble” (James 2:19). It’s possible for us to think of faith as a simple, intellectual assent to correct ideas. If I ask, “Do you believe that Jesus died for you?” and you say, “Yeah, yeah, I believe that,” that doesn’t constitute, in and of itself, saving faith.

There are at least three elements to saving faith according to the Reformers. First of all, there is notitia, which is the information or the data. There is content to the gospel that we must believe. We must believe that Jesus is our Savior. We must believe that He died on the cross for us. We must acknowledge it to be true that we are sinners before a holy God. That’s the information.

The second element is assensus, or intellectual assent. I have to agree that these things are true, that Jesus truly died for my sins. But it’s not just passing a theology exam. A person can be aware of the information and even agree that it is true, but Satan knows the content, and Satan knows that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but he’s not redeemed by that. Why not?

Satan is not redeemed by possessing only the first two elements because the third and crucial element of saving faith is fiducia, which means personal trust and reliance. Saving faith is given to all of those who put their trust in Christ and His righteousness—and put their trust there alone.

Fides Viva

The Reformers said that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. True faith, if you’re really resting in Christ, and you’re really counted righteous by God, will immediately, necessarily, and inevitably produce the fruit of sanctification.

If no fruit follows from your justification, it is perfect proof that there was no justification, because the idea of faith without the fruit of obedience is what James called a dead faith (James 2:20)—and that can’t justify anyone. For Luther, justification is by a faith that he described as a fides viva, a faith that is alive, a faith that is vital, a faith that shows itself by faithfulness.

But again, the issue is: How am I justified? I am justified not by my own righteousness and not by my own merit, but by the righteousness of Christ and of Christ alone.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.