Justification by Faith Alone
(The Nature of Justifying Faith)
Dr. John H. Gerstner
Eternal life depends on Christ alone — nothing, but nothing, else. Predestination will not bring it. Providence cannot produce it. It does not rest on foreknowledge, divine decrees, or even the atonement itself. Eternal life is Christ dwelling in His righteousness in the soul of the justified person. So eternal life is union with Jesus Christ. And the word for that union with Jesus Christ is faith. The sinner comes to Him, rests in Him, trusts in Him, is one with Him, abides in Him; and this is life because it never, ever, ends. The united soul abides in the Vine eternally. Weakness, sin, proneness to sin never brings separation, but only the Father’s pruning, which cements the union even and ever tighter.
This is the heart of the Bible. This is the heart of the gospel. This is the heart of Christianity. This is the heart of the saint. This is the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those are the reasons it was the heart of the Reformation; and this is the reason the contemporary attempt of some Protestants to unite with those who do not even claim this heart of the life of Jesus Christ is to commit spiritual suicide. No lover of Jesus Christ can consent to this apostasy.
Faith is an Act but Not a Work
Faith means to trust in Jesus Christ. It is coming to Him. It is casting all your cares on Him. The old acrostic — Forsaking All I Trust Him? is theologically perfectly accurate. We all know the old Greek acrostic for fish: (icthus). I might coin a new acrostic on the Greek word for faith (pistis): Polluted I Surrender To Jesus Savior. No text of Holy Scripture tells it quite as well as Romans 4:5: "To the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
Notice how many different ways (7) this Scripture teaches justification by faith alone in one verse:
The hymn does not exaggerate when it says, "NOTHING in my hands I bring."
A woman said to me after hearing me preach on sin, "You make me feel so big (holding her fingers an inch apart)." I was shocked and replied, "Lady, that is too big; much too big, fatally big. You and I are a minus quantity, and all fallen mankind with us. Justification can only be by faith alone."
You see that faith is an act but it is not a work — a work of merit, that is. Faith is workless, worthless. According to Roman Catholicism, those works, so far from being worthless, are worth eternal life. They entitle a person who has perfected them to nothing less than eternal heaven.
I was debating a Romish priest once on this subject, and he seemed to be reluctant to admit how good his and his fellows’ works were. The audience was largely Protestant. I guess he would have appeared to evangelicals to be bragging. I couldn’t get him to defend what he was there to defend (until I brought from my briefcase Schroeder’s Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent and read from that source that works entitled a person to heaven). It was then that he acknowledged his church’s doctrine. Then, and only then, did he admit how good Roman Catholic works are thought to be.
Romanists many times fool Protestants by their claim to teach "by grace alone" (sola gratia). And they sometimes fool themselves when they are more evangelical than a Romanist can honestly be. Romanists are saved by their works which come from grace, according to their teaching. It is not the grace but the works which come from it that save them! If a person believes that grace saves him he is a Protestant and belongs with us. He is in the wrong church if he believes the evangelical way and is not witnessing honestly. A dishonest person can never be saved, be he Protestant or Roman.
I was in an area where some Protestant ministers told me of a "Father Joe" who, they said, was the most evangelical man in the whole area. I remarked that if that were so he was also the most dishonest man in the whole area. We have many Protestants today who are claiming to be one with Romanists as fellow evangelicals. Unless such Protestants are utterly ignorant of the meaning of evangelicalism, they cannot be Christians, much less Protestants or Roman Catholics. Christians are required to "provide things honest in the sight of all men" (Romans 12:17). Labels are supposed to tell contents. If this is true of bottles of medicine that concern only this life, how much more of the medicine of immortality — the contents of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Evangelicalism means the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to — not infused into — the believer.
So Scripture is teaching us that the faith which saves is not a work. It has no spiritual value in itself. Strictly speaking, the true Christian church does not teach justification by faith. It teaches justification by Christ. Where does the faith come in? It is simply the uniting with, joining with, becoming one with, the Lord Jesus Christ. Being married to Christ, all that is His becomes His bride’s, the believer’s. A wife becomes a co-heir of all that belongs to her husband simply by being his wife, by her union with him in marriage. That is the fact: she is his wife. There is no virtue or merit in that. She simply possesses what now belongs to her by that relationship. Marriage is not a virtue that deserves a reward, but a relationship that brings the husband’s possessions along with him.
That is the meaning of the word "reckons" or imputes or credits. The justified one "does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked."
This is why I claim Thomas Aquinas for Protestantism. He teaches the justificatio impii, the justification of the impious or wicked, just as Paul teaches in Romans 4:5. If the wicked are ever justified, it cannot be by works or faith AS A WORK. It is justification by Jesus Christ alone. It is His righteousness, which He achieved for His people by fulfilling all righteousness, that becomes theirs as His bride.
Some Romanists will say that they too teach justification by grace — by Christ’s righteousness, in fact. But the righteousness of Christ which they claim justifies is not Christ’s own personal righteousness reckoned or credited or given or imputed to believers. Romanists refer to the righteousness which Christ works into the life of the believer or infuses into him in his own living and behavior. It is not Christ’s personal righteousness but the believer’s personal righteousness, which he performs by the grace of God.
It is Christ’s righteousness versus the believer’s own righteousness. It is Christ’s achievement versus the Christian’s achievement. It is an imputed righteousness not an infused righteousness. It is a gift of God versus an accomplishment of man. These two righteousnesses are as different as righteousnesses could conceivably be.
It does come down to the way it has been popularly stated for the last four and a half centuries: Protestantism’s salvation by faith versus Rome’s salvation by works. That is not a technically accurate way to state this vital difference, But it points to the truth. The Protestant trusts Christ to save him and the Catholic trusts Christ to help him save himself. It is faith versus works. Or, as the Spirit of God puts it in Romans 4:16 (NIV), "Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace, and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring." It is "by faith SO THAT IT MAY BE BY grace...."
If a Romanist wants to be saved by grace alone, it will have to be by faith alone. "The promise comes by faith so that it may be by grace." You can’t be saved "sola gratia" except "sola fide." Every Roman Catholic who wants to be saved by grace must be saved by faith and join us.
And we want Romanists to be saved. We aren’t trying to win an argument but souls! How sad to see a banner raised against "faith alone" when that is the only way to be saved by grace. We agree with Roman friends — salvation is by grace. That is the reason it must be by faith. If it is a salvation based on works that come from grace, it is not based on grace but on the Christian’s works that come from grace. The works that come from grace must prove grace but they cannot be grace. They may come from, be derivative of, a consequence of, but they cannot be identified with it. Faith is merely union with Christ who is our righteousness, our grace, our salvation. 1 Corinthians 1:30, "It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus who has become for us wisdom from God," that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Christ is our righteousness. Our righteousness does not result from His righteousness, it is His righteousness.
Faith is Not a Work, but it is Never without Work
Romanists have always tried to hang antinomianism on Protestantism. They seem incapable even of understanding "justification is by faith alone, but not by the faith that is alone," though that formula has been present since the Reformation.
If this were a true charge it would be a fatal one. If Protestantism thought that a sinner could be saved without becoming godly, it would be an absolute, damning lie. His name is "Jesus" for He saves His people from their sins, not in them. And He saves His people not only from the guilt of sin but from its dominating power as well. If a believer is not changed, he is not a believer. No one can have Christ as Savior for one moment when he is not Lord as well. We can never say too often: "Justification is by faith alone, but NOT by the faith that is alone." Justification is by a WORKING faith.
Why does Rome continue to make that centuries-long misrepresentation of justification by faith alone? Because:
Let me explain, therefore, once again what the Protestant biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works means. Justification with God is apart from the merit of works. That does not mean that justification is apart from the existence of works. Christianity teaches justification apart from the merit of works. Easy-believism teaches justification apart from the existence of works. Faith without the existence of works is dead. Faith without the merit of works is antinomianism. Faith with the merit of works is legalism.
A.H. Strong (Baptist Theologian, 1836-1921) uses the analogy of a locomotive engine, its cars, and couplings. All the power to move the cars is in the locomotive. None of the power is in the couplings. Yet the locomotive, with all its power, cannot move one car without the coupling.
Justification is by Works — in One Sense
With all the clear biblicality and truth of justification by faith alone, there is still in human nature a gnawing sense of something lacking here. The Hindus call it "karma," or the law of works. My friends say, when I get a split on the bowling alley when I should have had a strike, "You don’t live right." Deuteronomy says, "Your sins will find you out." Hegel said that the Geschichte (history) of the world is the Gericht (judgment) of the world. The mills of the gods grind slowly but they grind exceedingly fine.
In other words, justification by faith alone seems to violate the built-in moral perception that each person must pay for his own bad deeds. He cannot be let off without penalty. God is not a respecter of persons. A moral being does not play favorites. Justice is blind.
So far is justification by faith alone from violating this principle that it honors it more than damnation itself. Christian heaven is gained in a way more just than what Jonathan Edwards calls "The justice of God in the damnation of the wicked."
This is implied in what has already been said about the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. But let me be more explicit. Jesus Christ was punished in the elect sinner’s stead. The full wrath of God deserved by the sinner was poured out in full on the sinner’s Substitute. And that punishment undergone by the sinner in his substitute wasmore than the sinner would have suffered by an eternity in hell, for the sinner’s Substitute was no less than the fulness of the Godhead dwelling bodily (Colossians 2:9). God cannot die in His own infinite, spiritual, unchangeable, eternal nature, but He could and did die in the real human nature to which He united Himself for the very purpose of suffering and dying so that His people need never suffer ever at the hand of a holy and just God. Surely mercy and truth kissed each other in perfect justice.
Thus, the sinner was punished. No sinner ever escapes the justice of God—least of all those for whom Jesus Christ suffered, bled, and died. Christ descended into hell on the cross. Because Christ descended into hell, those for whom He died ascend into heaven. They went to hell with Him and they will go to heaven with Him. That is the perfect justice of pure grace.
Theologians often say that God shows His justice in hell and His mercy in heaven. But in so doing He shows more justice in heaven than in very hell. Hell must be eternal because its victims never can suffer sufficiently in a temporal hell. Heaven must be eternal because the redeemed can never receive the blessings their Savior has purchased for them in a temporal (of, say, only trillions of years) heaven. Edwards has poignantly written in an unpublished sermon on Mark 9:44: "As sure as God is true, here will absolutely be no end to the miseries of hell." He could add: As surely as God is true here will absolutely be no end to the joys of heaven.
Jesus earned all this. He paid for it with His blood. All Christians can say with the chief of saints, who called himself the chief of sinners Paul), "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Justification is ultimately by works — the works of Jesus Christ! They are received by the justified sinner as his own works. Christ justified His people by His works as their works; works done by them in their Substitute.
Christ justified Himself by His works. He was justified (or vindicated) by the Spirit, according to I Timothy 3:16. Probably the best translation of Romans 4:25 is: "He was delivered ever to death for our sins and was raised to life for (rather, "because of") our justification." Christ’s raising or resurrection showed that His redemption was successful. Christ "through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 1:4)
Resurrection would not normally prove one to be the Son of God. All the dead are going to be resurrected at the last day of judgment. But Christ’s rising from death proved that He was the divine Savior He claimed to be and that His atonement had accomplished justification for those for whom He died. This was the New Covenant in His very blood shed for the remission of sins He had taken on Himself. Fulfilling all righteousness, He thus justified Himself and His people. Therefore, He was resurrected from death and ascended in glory for Himself and His people whom He brought in His train as He led captivity captive to heaven. Because of the justification of the Christians, the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, victor o’er the grave — His grave and His people’s. Hallelujah! Amen and Amen! Justification is by works — the works of Jesus Christ! and His people’s too (by faith)!
After Justification, the Works of Faith Merit Reward
"Leap for joy," the Lord Jesus says, "for great is your reward in heaven." (Luke 6:23) So, there are going to be rewards — great rewards for the works of faith.
Are the Romanists right after all? Rewards for works? Salvation earned by the Christian’s deeds?
There can be no doubt that the Lord Jesus Christ teaches rewards for faith-works. Nor can there be any doubt that it is not the Roman doctrine of justification by works, and is the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, But it takes some explaining.
First, rewards for works is not the Roman doctrine of justification by works. The Christian’s works are so imperfect that they could never merit justification, which they couldn’t merit if they were perfect.
Second, rewards in heaven for imperfect works on earth is perfectly compatible with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works. Imperfect works (or even perfect works) could never remit guilt or earn justification. But imperfect works can merit the rewards in heaven that the Lord Jesus Christ says they will receive. Even a cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name will have its eternal reward—deservedly! Why deservedly?
Christians will receive rewards in heaven for every one of their imperfect "good" works for a very good reason. Those post-justification good works are not necessary for heaven because Jesus Christ purchased heaven for those in Him by faith. The works are necessary to prove the genuineness of professed faith but they are not necessary for earning heaven. They are real "works of super-erogation," if you wish. Anyone who goes to heaven does so for the merit of Christ’s work alone, apart from any merit in any and all of his own works of obedience. If faith could exist apart from works, which it cannot, the believer could go to heaven without ever doing one good work. As it is, he goes to heaven without one iota of merit in anything and everything he does. But every post-justification good work he ever does will merit, deserve, and receive its reward in heaven.
You protest, "But post-justification works have sin in them, and therefore cannot merit any reward." You forget that their guilt of sin has been removed. Moreover, do you dare impugn the justice of God by saying that He would "reward" what did not deserve reward? (P.S. I confess my own and Augustine’s past error in using the oxymoron: "rewards of grace.")
In conclusion, faith, as union with Christ, possesses Christ’s righteousness which justifies perfectly forever. Being true faith, it is inseparable from works which contribute zero to justification. But being unnecessary for heaven (which Christ’s merit alone purchases), works are meritorious and the Christian is now to leap for joy because every one of his weakest of works will deservedly receive an everlasting reward in heaven.
Reader, I urge you to seek God for faith and, if and when God finds you, to abound in the works of the Lord!
Dr. John H. Gerstner earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He was a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., and adjunct professor at Knox theological Seminary in ft. Lauderdale, FL. The author of many books and articles, his magnum opus is the three volume set, The Rational biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. He has written three books published by Soli Deo Gloria: Repent or Perish, Theology for Everyman, The ABC’s of Assurance, and Primitive Theology which is a collection of Dr. Gerstner’s past writings.
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