What if you really believed that God is 100% for you? That he not only accepts you, but accepts you fully, because of the perfect person and work of his Son? That your best successes can’t earn you any more access, and your worst failures can’t take any of it away? If you did — really did — it might change everything for the pursuit of joy in your life.
The Christian doctrine that deals with God’s acceptance of us into right relationship with him is called justification. It’s the long j-word that has so much to do with the short j-word that we’re all seeking in our own way: joy.
Justification by Faith Alone
Justification deals with how we get right with God. Here the setting is the law court. There’s a defendant (you), and there’s a Judge (God). And we’re all rightly charged with unrighteousness — a treasonous offense against the Judge himself.
To be justified means that the Judge declares you righteous, rather than guilty. It means to be cleared of any wrongdoing. The remarkable thing, according to the Christian gospel, is that even though we truly are guilty, God “justifies the ungodly” through faith (Romans 4:5).
On what basis, though, does God declare us righteous? It’s been a major controversy for nearly 500 years. Some have claimed that our full acceptance by God is based not only on the work of Christ outside of us, but also on the Holy Spirit’s work in us. God infuses us with righteousness and declares us righteous with that in view.
Others have claimed — taking their cues from Scripture — that God’s full acceptance of us is owing to the righteousness of another, Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1). We are declared righteous, and fully accepted by God, not on the basis of any righteousness in us, but only through faith, looking outside ourselves and joining us to a righteousness not of our own doing — Jesus who is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30; Romans 5:19; 10:4; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
This justification by faith alone is at the very heart of the gospel. Martin Luther called it the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. And those who most deeply hold to justification by faith alone become the world’s freest people, truest lovers, and greatest doers, all because they have found a greater and deeper capacity and potential for joy.
His Righteousness, Our Rejoicing
“We cannot be truly happy unless God’s acceptance of us is totally based on Christ.”
One key biblical passage for why justification by faith alone is essential for true joy in God is Philippians 3:1 and the verses that follow.
In chapter 2, Paul stressed that it is joy that keeps him going in the ministry, and joy that he hopes inspires the Philippians to pursue unity and humility. He returns to that theme of joy a few verses later as he turns to address the orientation of the church toward her enemies.
“Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1) is not only the connection to what has come before, but it is a banner that flies over the section that follows. This is no simple segue. This is the very thing that will separate true believers from religious posers. Paul focuses in on what binds the church together, and gives her the wherewithal to stand firm in the face of opposition: joy in Jesus. Rejoice in the Lord.
The main contrast Paul makes here between the church and her opponents is the varying sources of their confidence. The opponents’ confidence, for right-standing with God, is in their own performance, but the true people of God “put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). Not some confidence in the flesh, but no confidence in the flesh. In other words, they embrace justification by faith alone. Whatever grounds they might have for confidence in self, they have pushed that aside to “glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:3). God’s acceptance of them is totally based on Christ.
We cannot be truly happy unless God’s acceptance of us is totally based on Christ.
Not Your Pedigree or Performance
Paul embraced this reality with humility and boldness. If he was tempted to lean on his own pedigree and performance, he had just about anyone imaginable outdone (Philippians 3:4–6). But rather than trusting in his record of right-doing, Paul has been given life and liberty in the gospel for the surpassing pursuit of happiness. All his impressive gains he has counted as loss,
in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:8–9)
“Those who are strongest in justification by faith alone will be freest in their pursuit of joy.”
Joy in God, then, is inextricably linked to justification by faith alone. “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” will not be fully enjoyed apart from being joined to Jesus by faith and having his righteousness, which far surpasses our own, as the only grounds of God’s acceptance of us. A robust, solid embrace of justification by faith alone is essential for the life of Christian joy.
To the degree that we believe God’s acceptance of us rises or falls by our own merit, our joy is compromised.
“Now Did My Chains Fall Off”
John Bunyan (1628–1688), the persecuted baptist pastor and author of Pilgrim’s Progress recalled the day, walking through a field, when the Spirit opened to him the glory of justification by faith alone — and with it opened for him the floodgates for the pursuit of joy. After much distress and anguish of heart, he says, he finally saw
that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today, and forever.” Heb. 13:8. Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. . . . Now I went also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.
Such has been the testimony of many, among the dead and the living. As John Piper writes,
The great gospel weapon in the fight for joy is the rock-solid reality that we are counted righteous in Christ by faith alone. . . . That gospel weapon is powerful only to the degree we keep the basis of our justification free from our own performances. God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not ours. . . . Oh, what a difference it makes to be assured, in the discouraging darkness of our own imperfection, that we have a perfect righteousness — namely, Christ’s. (When I Don’t Desire God, 85)
So also Bunyan and Piper have experienced, with the apostle Paul, that the full acceptance of God, by faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, is essential to the unencumbered and uncompromised pursuit of joy.
The Joy of Acceptance
Have you tasted the joy that comes when justification by faith alone sheds its light into your darkened soul? There are many causes of joylessness in Christians, but one that too often has been overlooked is this: If we are weak on justification, we will be weak in joy.
True Christian joy is inconsistent with any theology that compromises justification by faith alone. If professing Christians can’t believe that they have been fully accepted now by God — not waiting for some decisive, future verdict — their pursuit of joy in God will inevitably stall, sputter, and shrivel.
Those who are strongest in justification by faith alone will be freest in their pursuit of joy.