The Doctrine of Justification by Faith

SCBO Evangelism Celebration | Cedarville

Since the titles of these messages weren’t published, I felt a little bit of liberty at 11 p.m. last night to change my mind. As I listened to everybody talk, I thought about how I was going to talk about lessons from the life of Athanasius about defending the faith. And as I looked at what I had, I said, “This has been said well enough. I don’t need to go here.” But I think something has not been said at this conference that needs to be said. This is a conference on evangelism, and defending the faith as a suborder, and nobody has articulated the heart of the gospel yet. We’ve all talked around it and assumed it. And so, it just landed on me to put these two together. What is the gospel and what aspects of it need defending today?

I’m going home in a few hours, and on Wednesday I meet with a whole bunch of students and they’re going to hammer me with questions about the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, and why we should believe in the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. So I’m going to talk about that because it helped me get ready for my encounter tomorrow.

But mainly it’s because the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ has fallen on hard times in these days. Those of you who are reading have heard of the New Perspective on Paul and people like E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright, and to my dismay, so many evangelicals are embracing, not just the wholesome, helpful dimensions of the new perspective, but aspects of it that are undermining Reformation truth, which is biblical truth. Let me explain what I mean and then I’m going to take you to Romans and we’re going to work on this for a few minutes.

The Doctrine of Justification

The doctrine of justification by faith is the heart of the gospel. And it goes like this: the righteousness required for our justification, for our right standing and our righteousness before God, is not a righteousness we perform, even by the grace of God. So many people today are saying, “Oh, but we’re different from the Catholics because we believe in the sovereign grace of God enabling us to do the things that God requires, which constitutes our righteousness.” And I say that you’ve given away the store if you go that way. So that’s the negative. The righteousness that God requires for our justification is not a righteousness that we perform, even by sovereign grace, but it is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us by God. It’s called an alien righteousness.

Yes, I believe in sanctification. Yes, I believe that sanctification, that is, my performed righteousness, is a necessary evidence of the authenticity of my faith which unites me to Christ, who is my righteousness. Yes, I believe there should be holiness of life and you can go to hell for not being a holy person because the holiness that you lack shows you are not trusting God, and thus not united to Jesus, and thus not sharing in his righteousness, which is perfect.

God requires a perfect righteousness. We cannot perform it. You will not even perform it sufficiently in heaven because in heaven there will be a continuity with your life here. Therefore, you’ll always be a forgiven sinner, always forever. Even when you are perfect in heaven, you’ll be you. You take you to heaven. You are you from cradle to grave. And from the grave to eternity, that’s you. It’s all you. And you’re a sinner, and you’ll always be a forgiven sinner who stands righteous before God on the ground of the righteousness of Christ, which you have by faith alone.

And oh, how we need to get this right. If we don’t preach this, we don’t preach the robust, biblical gospel. And I say that because of Romans 1:16, which 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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed . . .

He’s defining the powerful gospel, the robust gospel, as the gospel in which righteousness is being revealed. What does that mean? Now we’re at Romans 3:21 where he picks that theme up again. He has just talked about the awful condition we’re in for three chapters, and he says:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested . . .

That’s picking up from Romans 1:17. Do you see the connection between Romans 1:17 and righteousness being revealed in Romans 3:21? He continues:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ . . .

So we need to figure this out, and the way I want to do it is to ask a question.

The Need for a Defense

Here’s the question I’m asking. I’m asking very specifically, does the Bible teach that God imputes the righteousness of Christ and his fulfillment of the law to ungodly sinners who merely trust him for it? Does God do that? Is that a biblical teaching? I want to ask because two articles showed up a few years ago in Books & Culture by Robert Gundry saying that is not a biblical teaching. He said it is a leftover of systematic theology and it’s not part of biblical theology, so we should be honest and just drop that whole concept of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to sinners. And I wrote a whole book in response to those two articles. I was so bent out of shape that evangelicals would even publish those articles without some kind of balanced response.

They tried to follow it up with Thomas Oden’s article defending it, and bless God for what Thomas Oden is doing in these days in his turn from liberalism to evangelicalism, but all he did was defend the fact that it’s a historical doctrine from the Reformation. Well, that won’t cut it with biblical scholars. Biblical scholars are arguing that it’s not in the Bible. You have to show that it’s in the Bible. So I wrote my little book called Counted Righteous in Christ.

And so, here’s where I want us to go in the few minutes we have. I want to give you a credible argument that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the ungodly by faith alone. Let’s start in Romans 4. We’re going to do some careful thinking here, so put on your caps.

The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness

Let’s jump in. We have to go fast. Romans 4:2 says:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

I think that means he can’t be justified by works before God. He isn’t justified by works before God. And then he quotes Genesis 15:6, which says:

What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed (that’s the opposite of works) God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).

Now that word counted is the key word. The Greek word is logizomai, and it can be translated as counted, credited, reckoned, or imputed. They all mean the same thing. I have no problem with using any of those words. I just want you to know that’s the word on which we base the doctrine of imputation. Righteousness is imputed.

However, there’s a question here. When you read, “Abraham believed God and it” — that is, his believing — “was counted to him as righteousness,” does that mean faith is the righteousness? That’s what it looks like. A lot of people are taking it that way. They say that faith, or faithfulness, is your righteousness. You do it. He looks on it, and he counts it as what is required. So this is now not the imputation of an alien righteousness. That understanding would mean he is looking at your intrinsic performance, even of faith or faithfulness, and he says, “That’s what I require. That’s your righteousness. That’s the ground on which you stand. And I accept you because you have performed that.”

And that’s what it looks like it means, which is why it’s gaining in ascendancy. It says God reckons it as righteousness. But here’s the alternative, historic, Reformation interpretation — namely, it’s not that the faith is the righteousness and is counted as such, but rather that faith unites you to God, or Christ, who becomes your righteousness, and faith is the instrument of attachment to Christ who then has a righteousness counted to you.

To the One Who Does Not Work

Now, which of those is biblical? That’s the issue. I want to try to show you, by following Paul’s train of thought and then looking at a word in Philippians, that an alien external righteousness is being imputed to you, counted to you, credited to you because you had faith alone, and it’s not your faith that’s the righteousness. So let’s follow him.

Romans 4:4 says:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.

Now he’s picking up the word counted from Romans 4:3, and he’s showing how he understands it. He’s understanding it in a bookkeeping, employment, or ledger context. This is what the New Perspective blows away. They don’t like it. They don’t see it. They want to talk simply in terms of covenantal belonging to the people of God. At best, they say this is a subordinate concept in Paul, this idea of working, a wage, a ledger — this idea of, “Are you paid by what you earned? Are you paid by faith? And how do you get something credited to your account?” That’s the imagery of these two verses (Romans 4:4–5). And I think it’s really important. I don’t think it’s peripheral, I don’t think it’s subordinate. I think it’s foundational.

We belong to the covenant community because underneath it this happened. So the covenant participation in the people of God isn’t the main thing; it’s the result of this main thing, namely, that God counts me righteous. But let’s let Paul speak:

Now to the one who works . . . (Romans 4:4).

If you wanted to get it by works, this is the way you’d do it. You’d be paid a wage. Now, what would you be paid? Righteousness. That’s the wage here. Do you want righteousness by working? You’ll get it by a wage. It’s not as a gift and not according to grace, but as a due, as a debt. So there’s a way you can relate to God. You can take the law and you can perform it, and you can hope that in the performing of it you have now done your work and you will now get your wage.

Of course, when you get to Romans 6, you realize what the wages are really going to be if you go that way. The wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23). If you want to go the wage route, you get death.

The Wage and the Free Gift

Now Romans 4:5 is the alternative:

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness . . .

We’re not going that way. We’re not going to get righteousness by working, but we will trust. Here’s the second way you can have the wage. The reason this is so crucial is that Paul has brought an imagery to bear on our minds which has an external reality called a wage that is to come to us and it gives us two ways to get it. We can work for it or trust for it, but if I trust for it, the trust is not it. That’s my first argument. He has brought in an imagery to make righteousness an external thing like a wage. He is saying, “You have two ways of getting it. You can work for it or you can believe for it. And if you believe for it, it’s not the belief.”

However, he does quote the same word from Genesis 15:6 at the end of Romans 4:5. He says, “But, alternative to working, trust him who justifies the ungodly.” Oh, that’s good news. That preaches. Oh brothers, learn this glorious doctrine of the justification of the ungodly.

Somebody just asked me on a radio interview, what’s the relationship with this thing you’re going to talk about this morning and the changing of the world? The world will be changed by Christians when they have learned that the only sin they can make any headway in defeating in their lives is forgiven sin. If you turn it around and say, “I’m going to get justified by changing my life, changing the world, getting God to like me, getting him to accept me, getting him to reckon me as righteous someday,” you will fail. The key to a transformed world is to realize that the ungodly are counted righteous. You go to the brothels, you go to the inner-city gang bangers, and you say, “Guess what? God justifies the ungodly.” You go to the absolutely hopeless people, who cry their eyes out, who feel like 40 years of sin makes it impossible for them to be saved, and you say, “God justifies the ungodly by faith alone. Can you fall on this floor? If you can fall on this floor, you can fall on Jesus. It doesn’t take any muscles to fall.”

Oh, I have to stop preaching because I want to do this exegesis here and get this argument before you, and I’m going to lose it. So Lord, help me. Again, Romans 4:5 says:

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness . . .

He says it again, but the question is, what does it mean? Again, just the phrase by itself sounds like he’s looking at your faith and he’s saying, “That’s the righteousness. God is counting that as righteous.” And my first argument is, no, no, no. He has brought in an imagery of a wage obtained by working or a wage obtained by trusting, and if it’s by trusting, the righteousness is not the trusting. That’s argument number one.

The Blessedness of Imputed Righteousness

The second argument is to go into Romans 4:6. It explains a little further what this imputation was like for David, and he says:

Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works . . .

Keep remembering that the doctrine of imputation is in that word counting, or crediting. God imputes righteousness apart from works. This is interesting and very crucial. Notice in Romans 4:3 and Romans 4:5 it says that God is counting faith as something. In Romans 4:6, it says that God is counting righteousness. Righteousness is now the direct object of the imputation word. That’s hugely important. He shifted gears from looking at faith and saying, “That’s credited to your account for righteousness.” And now he’s looking at righteousness and saying, “I credit that to your account.” And it’s external. So I think his shifting of grammar and language in what’s the direct object of the counting in Romans 4:6 is very illuminating as to the meaning of what Genesis 15:6 meant.

Through Faith Alone

Let’s confirm this to see if we’re on the right track with Philippians 3:9. Would you go there with me? We’ll just read that one verse. Paul is longing and praying:

And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law (that is, I don’t want a righteousness that is my performance of the law), but that which comes (key prepositions here) through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith . . .

Faith is not it. It’s coming through faith. It’s “the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” See, you have the phrase “through faith” and “on faith.” I’m going to end this argument right here that it’s not faith. The righteousness, the wage, is not the faith.

An Illustration of Faith and Justification

Let me give you an illustration from my son’s bedroom to illustrate it because we need a conceptual framework. The average reader, if he just takes Genesis 15:6 out of context, which is quoted twice there in Romans 4 — “Abraham believed God and God counted it to him as righteousness” — is going to easily say faith is the righteousness. And I’m arguing right now, it is not the righteousness. It’s the instrument by which we get attached to God, or Christ, who gives us external, alien righteousness that is not our own.

So how can that language work like that? Let’s say I say to Barnabas, my son — he’s out of the house now but when I made this analogy up he was at home and a teenager — “Barnabas, clean your room this morning before you go to school. I’m your father, this is a command. Clean your room, make your bed, and get that stuff off the floor before you go to school. If you have a clean room this afternoon, you can go to the ballgame tonight. I make your going to the ballgame tonight contingent on you having a clean room.” And then he forgets and leaves the house without cleaning the room.

Now I’m really sad. I love my son. I want him to go to the ballgame. I don’t like this kind of discipline. So, being God-like, I clean his room and I make his bed. He comes home and it occurs to him as he walks in the front door, “I forgot to clean my room.” And instead of being feisty and argumentative, he says, “Daddy, I forgot to clean my room. I heard what you said. Okay, I’ll be home tonight.” And I look at him and I say, “Barnabas, I count your apology as a clean room. That’s counted as a clean room because I said this morning that if your room is clean, you go to the ballgame. Guess what? Your room is clean.” He’ll look at me and say, “Really?” And I say, “Right. I choose. I’m sovereign here. I’m God. I can do this. I count your apology as a clean room.” If I do that, does that mean his apology is a clean room?

An apology is an apology. The clean room is a clean room. The apology is not a clean room. So let’s get this clear. Me saying “I credit your apology as a clean room” is like Genesis 15:6 quoted in Romans 4:3 and Romans 4:5, which both say that God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness. And I’m arguing against the view that the faith is the righteousness. So when I say to Barnabas, “I credit, I count, I impute your apology as a clean room,” I do not mean, “Your apology is a clean room.” It’s upstairs, and he’s down here. And second, his clean room does not consist in an apology. It’s a clean room. His apology is that. This is this. And thirdly, he didn’t clean that room. I did. And he is going to this game by grace alone and by apology alone.

Now, it’s only an analogy. Don’t push the details here. That really helps me handle Genesis 15:6 in a fully biblical way rather than becoming Roman Catholic or New Perspective and saying that really, the righteousness that will get you right with God is your own performance of faith and faithfulness. That is sadly spreading in evangelicalism. And I don’t think it’s true.

Whose Righteousness Is Credited?

Now here are the remaining two questions. Whose righteousness is credited? We haven’t seen that answer in Romans 4. Whose righteousness is credited to our account when we believe in Jesus? And there are two answers. The first one is God’s righteousness, and the second one is Christ’s righteousness. They’re not at odds. We are Trinitarians. But let’s look at both of them to be biblically faithful.

Romans 3:20 says:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

So works are ruled out. You can never ever be reckoned righteous, counted righteous, by works of the law. But now here’s an alternative way to be counted righteous:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law . . .

So flowing from Romans 3:20, unpacking justification and how we are declared righteous, Romans 3:21 says, “The righteousness of God has shown up.” Now, what’s the connection with me, the sinner? Romans 3:22 makes it plain:

. . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

The righteousness spoken of is God’s righteousness, and it comes through faith in Jesus Christ for me as I believe. And so, I argue that the righteousness that’s imputed, the wage that doesn’t come through works but is freely given by faith, is God’s righteousness.

Christ, Our Righteousness

Now we have to ask more specifically, is it Christ’s?

Let’s go to 2 Corinthians 5. We’ll come back to Romans for our final argument, but 2 Corinthians 5:21 is as big as it gets in the doctrine of justification. There is an absolutely crucial word here. Let me set you up with 2 Corinthians 5:19:

That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting (now there is introduced the doctrine of the imputation) their trespasses against them . . .

How can that be? How can that be? How can God move through the world and save the ungodly by faith alone? I mean that’s unjust. You just can’t do that. Good judges don’t sweep sin under the rug and count the ungodly righteous. They count the righteous as righteous, and the ungodly they count as ungodly. And send the ungodly to jail and give the righteous liberty. That’s the way judges work. And here, God is not counting the sins of the world against them and imputing righteousness to ungodly people. This is so impossible, except for 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Now, the parallelism between what happened to Christ in regard to my sin and what happens to me in regard to God’s righteousness is absolutely crucial to see. Ask yourself this question, when God looked upon his sinless Son and made him to be sin for me, did Jesus at that moment become a morally corrupt person, sinning against his Father as he hung on the cross? Nobody believes that, or at least they shouldn’t. Everybody believes that’s imputation, not performance. Jesus didn’t start performing sin at that moment. He simply had my sin and your sin imputed to him. God looked upon him as though he were a sinner and punished him because of our sin.

Now you bring that imputation idea over onto me as I go into Christ by faith, and it says, “In Christ, I become the righteousness of God.” And I think we better keep the same imputing idea on this side of the analogy and say, “I don’t become righteous in order to get justified. God justifies the ungodly. Rather, I am credited with the righteousness of God.” And the connection with Christ is so plain. It is in Christ, in Christ, in Christ, so that I am now enveloped in my Christ. And there, by him, I have righteousness with God. And that brings his righteousness and God’s righteousness so close together I regard them as inseparable.

By One Man’s Obedience

I’m going to skip over some texts. Let’s just look at two more to decide whether I’m right here that this is a teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:21, that my righteousness is only in Christ and is thus the righteousness of Christ, even though it is called in Romans 3:20 the righteousness of God. I’m saying they’re one. Let’s just do one more text. Let’s go back to Romans and end on Romans 5:19. It says:

For as by the one man’s disobedience (that’s Adam) the many were made (constituted) sinners, so by the one man’s obedience (that’s Christ) the many will be made righteous.

Now there it’s explicit. The obedience I need is Christ’s. Adam’s disobedience was imputed to me before I did anything. That’s the teaching of Romans 5:12–19. Jesus’s righteousness is imputed to me before I perform any works of the law. I just lean on it, fall on it, cherish it, treasure it, and embrace it. It’s my only hope.

Preach the Gospel

I’m just going to close with a couple of exhortations. First, preach the gospel. Preach the gospel. Don’t assume your people know the gospel. They don’t. They don’t understand this doctrine. I promise you your people cannot articulate, most of them, the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, or the free work of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, all taught in the Bible alone without any help from the papal authority. Your people can’t articulate that.

Everybody, once upon a time 300 years ago, lived on that. They preached it. They loved it. It was John Bunyan’s only hope. Do you remember hearing about him walking among the trees as a 25 year old, utterly torn to shreds inside with lack of assurance, wondering how he could ever measure up and how God could accept a sinner like him. And he said it landed on him, though he couldn’t quote the verse at the time (1 Corinthians 1:30), that Christ is our righteousness. And he said, “Suddenly the Holy Spirit illumined my mind. And I saw that my righteousness is not in me. It’s in heaven, standing at the right hand of God. It cannot be more, it cannot be less. It is perfect, there, secure forever.” And he never doubted his salvation again.

Oh, feed the assurance of your people’s salvation. They don’t come to you very often with this news, but they have late-night, horrible feelings that they’re not really Christians. They need to be taught what justification by faith alone is and how it relates to sanctification. So that’s my first exhortation. Preach the gospel.

Understand the Universal Application of Justification by Faith Alone

The second thing I would say is, it is universally applicable. It dare not be abandoned when you go to Guinea, or China, or Sri Lanka, as though, “Well, they don’t have the same legal system that we have there, and they don’t have judges, and they don’t have the same ideas, so we better just use regeneration language there. Or maybe they don’t have that either, so let’s just use sacrifice language.” Now, I know the atonement has many metaphors. I’m saying this one is universal because of Romans 5. Adam is the father of every tribe on planet earth, and Adam is the reason Christ has to come in as the second Adam. His righteousness has to fix Adam’s disobedience. That’s universal. There’s no tribe where that’s not crucial.

Give Christ His Full Glory

The third thing I would say is, give Christ all of his glory. Don’t do like the New Perspective people. They’re glorifying Jesus as the one who shed his blood to pay for our sins, but they rob him of the glory of the one who was perfectly obedient in his meticulous law-keeping so that his obedience could be imputed to us. There’s none of that there, and therefore, at least for some in the New Perspective, half of the glory of Christ in the performance of our salvation is robbed from him. I want him to be the pardon and the perfection of my life. I have sins that need to be forgiven, and I have shortcomings and cannot perform the perfection that the law demands. He is that and he is that. And I’m going to sing his praises as my righteousness and my pardon. Don’t strip out of hundreds of hymns the glorious truth that he is our righteousness.

Help Your People Rest in Christ

And the last thing I would say is, help your people with their assurance. I’ve said that already, but let me just underline it. Most of your people struggle with the doctrine, that is, with the experience of assurance. I speak from personal experience. Some of us are wired to doubt our own motives and to doubt ourselves. If I am left with having to perform even a fraction of the righteousness that some of you are capable of, I’m undone. I am undone. I won’t have any standing before the throne, and I won’t be able to sleep tonight. I have to do this so often. As I set my alarm and I put my head down, I ponder, “I might, at three o’clock this morning, wake up in heaven without waking up here. How would it be? I’ve sinned today. My motivations have been corrupt today. How would it be?”

I tell you, you want to be able to say to your people, “Your righteousness that gives you a standing with the Father is not your own. It’s not your own. It’s God’s. It’s Christ’s.”