Justification is rightly said to be “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” It’s a central facet of the biblical good news. If you mess up on justification, you’re messing up on the gospel and that’s potentially fatal.
What do we mean by “justification”? Historic Protestant theology teaches that justification is a judicial declaration by God that a sinner is righteous. This declaration or verdict is made only on the basis of what Christ has done in his perfect life and his perfect sacrifice on the cross. This blessing of being declared righteous by God is received only by faith — which is to say, by resting and trusting in Christ alone.
Now there are several ways in which Christians can get this vital doctrine wrong. Today I’m going to focus on two common mistakes.
By Works or By Faith Alone?
The first mistake has to do with the role of good works. You may notice that, in the description I gave above, there was absolutely no mention of good works. This is because the Bible plainly says in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Good works don’t factor in to how we are justified.
Sadly, there’s a lot of confusion out there on this point. In 2018, Ligonier Ministries did their “State of Theology” survey. One of the statements respondents were asked to evaluate was this: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.” Here are the results:
These results are for the general American population. Things are better for respondents who identify as “evangelical,” with 83% either somewhat agreeing or strongly agreeing.
However, if you phrase the question differently, you can end up with quite different results. At a pastors’ convention in 2006, Shane Rosenthal from the White Horse Inn radio program asked pastors in an open-ended way about the basis of justification, whether it was by faith, by faith and works, or by works alone. About half responded that justification is by faith and works. Those were ostensibly Protestant pastors!
Let me be absolutely clear: good works do not factor in to how we are justified. Any one who tells you otherwise is departing not only from historic Protestantism, but from the biblical doctrine. (“But what about James?” See here if you’re asking that question at this point).
Event or Process?
A second common mistake has to do with the nature of justification as a court-room declaration or verdict. Specifically, is it a one-time event or a life-long process for the Christian? This isn’t an academic question. It has enormous practical, pastoral significance. If it’s a one-time event, then I can wake up each morning with the confidence that I’m still righteous in Christ. I’m still secure in God’s family. But if it’s a life-long process, then each day time and again I have to start over in my relationship with God. Each day I begin by facing him as my judge, and not my Father.
So what does the Bible say? Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That speaks of justification as a completed action with a consequence: peace with God. While it doesn’t use the word “justify,” Romans 8:1 drives home the same truth: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So why is there no condemnation? Because of justification once and for all. If you have believed in Jesus Christ with a true faith, you are justified once and for all. A verdict made by the heavenly Judge is an event, not a process.
Now if you go back to that pastors’ convention in 2006, Shane Rosenthal asked pastors in an open-ended way: is justification an event or a life-long process? Some weren’t sure. Some had to think about it. A few clearly identified it as an event. But 51% said that it’s a life-long process.
One would think that confessionally Reformed theologians would know better. However, sadly, I’ve encountered this error in Reformed literature as well. For example, Prof. Benne Holwerda (1909-1952) was a highly respected theologian in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. He has a four-volume set of books with his catechism sermons in them (De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn). Some of these sermons have been translated into English. Some of them are really good and insightful. But when it comes to Lord’s Day 23, Holwerda takes a drastic misstep in the doctrine of justification. Towards the end of the sermon, he argues that God’s justification is not a one-time judicial declaration, but an ongoing process in the covenant. At the very least, he’s ambiguous on this:
Does God speak one time, and then I believe one time, and then justification is completed? Oh no! We live in the covenant with God and that is a living inter-relation (verkeer); as I believe, then God comes again with his word of acquittal to the people, who now believe, and drives him so to works of thankfulness: justification by faith. And as he does this, then God appears again and declares him truly acquitted, he justifies him then also through works, says James.
There shouldn’t be ambiguity here. There certainly isn’t any ambiguity in the Heidelberg Catechism or the Reformation from which it originated. The Roman Catholic Church taught/still teaches that justification is a process. Historic Protestant theology (as expressed in the Reformed confessional tradition) maintains that justification is a once-for-all judicial declaration.
The Apostle Paul teaches us how important it is to get justification right. It’s not only in Romans, but also in Galatians. In fact, I’d say the importance of rightly understanding justification is expressed even more powerfully in Galatians. Paul says that those who preach it wrongly preach “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). Getting justification wrong means you’re preaching “man’s gospel” (Gal. 1:11). Finally, it has hellacious consequences: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9). It’s vital to discern truth from error in regards to this key doctrine.