The doctrine of justification by faith alone on the ground of Christ’s imputed righteousness remains under direct attack in various quarters. Reformulations of the doctrine among proponents of the New Perspectives on Paul (Sanders, Dunn, Wright) as well as men such as Dan Fuller, Norman Shepherd, and Peter Leithart have dangerously distorted the biblical teaching. As someone who wrote his PhD dissertation on the doctrines of justification in Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach, I am convinced that modifying the biblical doctrine is a serious theological error. As a pastor of a local church, I have observed how the doctrine of justification humbles the proud, strengthens the fainthearted, gives assurance to the fearful, encourages vulnerable and motivates self-sacrificing love. To deny this doctrine is to deny the very heart and power of the gospel. May the Lord bring theological clarity on this doctrine for the sake of His own glory and for the good of His beloved bride.
Scriptural Reasons Denying Justification is a Serious Error
1. To deny justification is to deny the heart of the gospel. At the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells us that the gospel is powerful to save. He says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). Then Paul tells us why the gospel is powerful to save. “For in it [the gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous [or the just] shall live by faith.’” Thus, justification or righteousness by faith for life is the power of the gospel itself. To deny justification by faith alone is to deny the power of the gospel.
2. To deny justification is to stumble. Paul explained why such a large portion of Israel was never saved. He writes, “What shall we say then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a a righteousness that is by faith, but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it [i.e., righteousness] by faith but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone” (Rom 9:30-32). Those who pursue a righteous status by their own works stumble over the gospel, which teaches that we are righteous, not for our own works, but only for the works of Another.
3. To deny justification is to receive the Bible’s curse. At the beginning of his letter to the Galatians, Paul issued a strong warning. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:6-8). One chapter later, in correcting the Galatian heresy, Paul tells us which doctrine we must not deny in order to avoid the curse: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ . . . by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:15-16). In justification, Paul tells us plainly, “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:10).
4. To deny justification is an offense that warrants church discipline. After warning against seeking justification by works, Paul tells the Galatians what to do about those who deny this biblical teaching. He writes, “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not inherit with the son of the free woman. So, brother, we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman” (Gal 4:30). Because denying justification is denying the gospel itself, those who do it should be “cast out” of the church.
A Common Objection Answered
In spite of all the passages cited above, some believe that justification by faith alone is a secondary or tertiary doctrine. They say, “We may be justified by faith alone, but we’re not justified by believing justification by faith alone.” Using that rationale, they go on to say a person may be saved without believing this crucial doctrine. But consider three points in response to that assertion.
1. Paul says no such thing when dealing with those who were denying the biblical doctrine of justification. He did not tell the Galatians, “We may be justified by faith alone, but we’re not justified by believing justification by faith alone.” On the contrary, Paul said that those who believed and taught contrary to the biblical doctrine of justification were cursed and needed to be cast out of the church.
2. To believe in justification by faith alone is to believe that Christ alone saves. Paul says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21). Those who don’t believe in the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone are not resting in Christ alone for their righteousness, and therefore they are not saved. This is not to suggest that someone must be able to articulate all the nuances of justification to be saved, only that in his heart, he must believe the biblical doctrine for salvation.
3. Such an assertion undermines the faith itself when applied to any other central doctrine of Christianity. “I may be saved by Christ alone, but I’m not saved by believing I’m saved by Christ alone.” “I may be reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus, but I’m not saved by believing I’m reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus.” Such a principle, consistently applied, would lead to full-blown inclusivism at best.
Further Reading on the Doctrine of Justification
Justification by Grace through Faith: Finding Freedom from Legalism, Lawlessness, Pride and Despair by Brian Vickers
Justification Reconsidered by Stephen Westerholm
The Doctrine of Justification by James Buchanan
The Pastor’s Justification by Jared Wilson
An earlier version of this post appeared at the Founders Blog. It has been republished here with the author’s permission.