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What Does It Mean to be Justified by Faith?

By David A. DePra


The doctrine of, "justification by faith alone," was central to the Reformation, and is certainly central to the NT epistles. Paul spends much time explaining it. But why? Justification by faith means that if I put my faith in Christ, God accrues to me His death, and accrues to Christ my sin. God is then able to impute to me the righteousness of Christ. That is the doctrine of justification by faith – in a nutshell. There are three places in the NT which probably best summarize this Truth:

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Gal 2:16)

Now we know that whatever things the law says, it says to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (Rom 3:19-25)

For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that works is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that works not, but believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (Rom 4:3-5)

The doctrine of justification by faith is not simply a creed that God handed us to believe. It is not a matter of merely understanding a Bible teaching. Rather, it is a doctrine that explains to us what God has done for us in Christ. It tells us what God has done for us, how He has done it, and why. And why is this important? We need to know the moral and spiritual implications of the Truth. This will not only help us walk with God, but will make it possible to know Him.

Biblical doctrine is never just a list of teachings to believe in. Rather, Biblical doctrine is a formal statement of what God has done, who God is, and what He is like. Whatever I believe is true Biblical doctrine, is what I believe about God Himself. In the end, it comes down to that.

Never divorce what you believe doctrinally from God Himself – for your doctrine IS an extension of the God in whom you are putting your faith. Some people dig in the Bible for doctrine, and then create God in the image of what they think they have found – even if they have fashioned false doctrine. But many more others grow up with, or acquire, a false picture of God, and then READ IT INTO the Bible. Either way, what you stand for doctrinally, is the KIND OF GOD you are saying is the one true God.

This is why true Biblical doctrine is essential, and cannot be comprised with, or neglected. No. If I preach false doctrine, I am, by my preaching, preaching a false gospel and a false GOD. But if I preach true doctrine, I am preaching the true gospel, and the true God. Certainly, I still have to LIVE my doctrine, and I must still go on to personally know the God my doctrine describes. But any way you want to slice it, what I preach and teach as to doctrine is representative of God in whom I believe.

For example, if I live under the bondage of legalism, and preach and teach it, my legalism is a reflection of what I believe God is like. If I live in license, then the God I think I know is a false God – my false God affirms my license. Make no mistake, the God I believe in is going to be reflected in my doctrine, one way or another. And if not in my doctrine, then in my attitude. And if not in my attitude, then in my disconnection with the Truth.

You and I each have a witness we LIVE – and that witness, or testimony, is reflective of first, what we believe about God, and second, it is reflective of our reaction to what we believe. Thus, if we don’t believe the Truth, at some point, our living testimony will carry darkness, bondage, fear, and will reflect unbelief. But if we do believe, and have yielded to the Truth, we will be MADE TRUE. And this, despite our weaknesses in so many ways, will be reflected in our lives and relationships.

Now, I have said all of this to try to get across the absolutely essential of seeing that there is MORE to these Christian doctrines than simply a lesson in theology. The doctrine of justification by faith tells us about the nature and character of God, and about what He has done through Christ. If we see this Truth, we will not only have correct theology, but we will be set free by the Truth.

Faith is in Christ

Justification by faith could be a bit of a misleading term -- if we aren’t careful. For many Christians believe that it is OUR FAITH that justifies us. What they mean by that is that, no, we cannot be made righteous by doing good works. But they believe we can be made righteous by believing – in other words, Christians assume that our faith is a righteous act performed by us, which God accepts in place of any of our insufficient righteous works.

This is error. Our faith is NOT a righteous act. Indeed, faith is the outcome of seeing I have no righteousness at all. Rather, faith is an act on our part to put our whole reliance upon the RIGHTEOUS ONE. In short, the reason our faith gives God place to declare us righteous is NOT because our faith is righteous. No. Rather, the reason our faith gives God place to declare us righteous is because HE IS RIGHTEOUS, and our faith is IN HIM.

In a very real sense, our faith does not save us – despite some Bible verses that, if taken the wrong way, might seem to say otherwise. No. Our faith cannot save us. Jesus saves us. But our faith connects us to Him, and embraces His salvation.

If you were one of those poor souls who went down with the Titanic, and were floating in the icy waters, about to die, and a lifeboat came along, would you consider it MERIT on your part to take the hand of the person who had come to save you? Would you get into the boat and expect the person who saved you to thank you for letting him save you? Would you expect a reward? Would you expect merit points for reaching out your hand and grabbing his before you went under? Surely not. But then why do we think that putting our faith in Christ is a merit? It is not. It is simply embracing the free gift of salvation.

But you see, if I don’t truly see my utter desolation as to my own righteousness, I WILL think that at least my faith is a merit. I will think that, no, I cannot save myself by my works. But I can save myself by my faith – I can sort of, "believe my way," up to heaven and bring down Christ. I can impress God, or attract His attention by my great faith. Then, I will suppose, when He sees my faith, He will save me as a reward.

We may not put it down in words quite that way, but most of us go this route before we learn the Truth. The Truth is, faith is NEVER a merit. It is the outcome of seeing you have NO MERIT. Faith is the outcome of realizing that unless there is One who is greater than I, in whom I can trust, I have no hope.

To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. (Rom 3:26-27)

Note that faith makes boasting impossible. But this is NOT because our faith is preordained by God, or that our faith is really the outcome of God’s election. Rather, faith makes boasting impossible, because if our faith is real, it is the outcome of seeing that we have nothing over which to boast – not works, or anything else. Real faith is always the by-product of spiritual bankruptcy.

It is here that we ought to briefly touch on the old argument as to whether it is possible for a spiritual dead person – i.e., an unsaved person – to believe and trust God. Calvinists say NO. In fact, Calvinism teaches that the new birth PROCEEDS faith. That’s right. Five-point Calvinism teaches that God must first sovereignly regenerate a person, and ONLY THEN CAN they believe. Wrong. The Bible never teaches this. What the Bible DOES teach is that God must call a person by bringing them light – which is NOT salvation, but merely the opening of the eyes to Christ. Then they have Truth TO believe. At that point, a person can still refuse salvation, or embrace Christ by faith.

However, when God does bring light into a person’s world, or consciousness, it is with absolute certainty that TWO things will be exposed by that light. I am here talking more about how a person gets saved, but this really does apply also to those times in the Christian life when God is bringing us on. But what are those TWO things that the light will reveal? First, the light will expose your SIN – you will be shown as a dead sinner. Second, the light will reveal Christ as your Savior. Indeed, it is more proper to say that Christ IS the Light who is revealed to the sinner, and it is through that revelation of Christ that the sinner sees his desperate condition.

Now, it is only if we see both our sinful condition, and Christ as our only hope, that we will even think we need to be justified by faith IN Christ. If I still think there is something about myself that I can present to God, I will not get far with God – I probably won’t really grasp the meaning of justification by faith. I might know the doctrine, but in my experience, I won’t know the meaning.

What I am getting at is this: When I come to the place where I know I am completely void of all righteousness, it is then that I will put my faith in Christ. But I won’t be offering my faith as a MERIT to God. Rather, I will be embracing God’s offer of Christ by my faith.

Why is a spiritually dead person able to do this – even while he is still unsaved? And why is this NOT a merit? Or a work? Because if I put my faith in Christ – the way the Bible says it must happen for salvation – I am not doing anything to earn, or to contribute to, my salvation. My faith is not a merit, nor is it an ability that enables me to contribute to my salvation. No. Rather, my faith is the outcome of seeing I have NO merits, and the outcome of seeing I have NO contribution to make to my salvation. I simply do the only thing I can do – hand myself over to Christ and embrace Him by faith. That is no more a merit than is taking the hand of the guy in the lifeboat.

It is true that we have no ability or contribution to make to our salvation. Salvation is by Christ’s work alone. But we do have a free will. Thus, when everything is said and done, there is one thing that a spiritually dead person CAN do – he can hand over his spiritually dead self to the Cross. Sure. If you have a SELF – if you have a free will – you can surrender that SELF. You cannot surrender by doing works. But you can surrender your will to God. And if God has, in fact, brought light to you, then you have enough to surrender. If you do,THAT is faith. Faith is always surrender. And true surrender is never a merit. It is the outcome of seeing I have no merits, and a turning to the One who has ALL merit.

Calvinism errs on virtually every essential doctrine of the Redemption – it errs on man’s responsibility to God, on whom Jesus died for, on how to be saved, and on the nature and character of God Himself. And one of the reasons it errs is because of this matter of faith. Calvinism teaches that if man could choose to believe that his faith would be his meritorious contribution to his own salvation. But this is a straw man argument. The Bible never teaches faith as merit, or a contribution. Faith is nothing more than my opening up so that God can bless me. It is really a matter of my giving God place for His glory and purpose. That’s not a merit. It is what is right and redemptive.

So what we see in all of this is that faith is of great value, not because of the one who has it, but because of the one in whom our faith is placed. Do you really think your faith would be worth anything if it were NOT in God? Actually, it would be worse than worth nothing. It would be destructive.

But back to justification by faith. This Truth tells us that if we put our faith in Christ – in the finished work of Christ – that our faith, in the eyes of God, is counted as the righteousness that we lack. But we are seeing that this doesn’t mean that our faith IS a righteousness that we generate up to God – so that God can then, having seen our righteous faith, declare us righteous. No. Our faith is not a righteousness that we present to God. Indeed, faith is never a merit of any kind. Rather, our faith is the outcome of finally seeing that we have NO merits, and the outcome of finally seeing that we have NO righteousness. Thus, once I see I have NO righteousness in myself, I relinquish my unrighteousness to Him through repentance, and then put my faith – my reliance and entire will – in Jesus Christ. I then receive Christ. And God says, "Because you have received Christ, I am able to IMPUTE to you all of HIS righteousness."

Can we now see that the utter nonsense and heresy of preaching a gospel that neglects to convict people of sin, and show them that they are sinners? You cannot even BEGIN unless you start with the fact that you are a needy sinner. You might know the doctrine of justification by faith. But you will not, in your inner man, believe you need to be justified by faith unless you see you are already NOT righteous.

Actually, there are TWO ways to deny that you need to be justified by faith. First, live in legalism. If you live in legalism, you are doing so – yes, perhaps because you see you aren’t righteous – but you are doing so because you still think you can make yourself righteous by works. And most legalists, despite living under condemnation, continually think they can escape it through works. This is the direct result of NOT seeing your true condition. Once you see your true condition in the light of Christ, you will never be a legalist again. I promise you that. The second way to deny the Truth of justification by faith is to live in license. This is because you don’t think you are a needy sinner as well, but if you living in license, you aren’t trying to make yourself righteous through works. You don’t have a real reverence for God.

The only way to come into the knowledge of the Truth – the knowledge that will set us free into a relationship with Christ – is by seeing Jesus Christ. If you truly see Jesus Christ – rather than simply know doctrines ABOUT Him – you will not be able to be a legalist or live in license for long. Not only will you see you are nothing – because He is all – but you will be set free by the fact. When a person sees Christ, they are no longer obsessed with themselves – they no longer try to BE righteous. Rather, they put their faith in Christ FOR righteousness.

So again – our faith is not what makes us righteous, but rather, it is Christ Himself, in whom we put our faith. Our faith is not righteous. Rather, our faith is IN the righteous ONE. That is why God is able to impute to us HIS righteousness.

The difficulty we have in understanding this is why Paul was inspired to write so much about it. And I would submit that if God inspired a big chunk of His Word to explain justification by faith that He must know we need to understand it. We need to understand it because it makes it possible to walk in the Truth and avoid false teaching. Knowing what God has done, and why, is part of knowing God Himself.

Christ in Us

Some Christians teach that justification by faith – and that alone – is salvation. This is not the Truth. Rather, justification by faith is the legal aspect of salvation. Because God is moral, all that He does must be moral and righteous. Thus, if God is to forgive and redeem a sinner, He must have a just cause for doing so. If God is to declare me righteous, it must be a righteous thing to do, for God Himself is righteous. Doctrines such a justification by faith explain the moral foundations of the Redemption and the character of God in it.

As stated, justification by faith is the LEGAL aspect of the Redemption. But what makes God declaring me LEGAL and MORAL?

Well, to start with, Jesus Christ died as our substitute for sin. Indeed, Jesus died for every sin ever committed, or that will be committed, by every human being. He really was the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. Not some sin, or for some people. No. ALL sin for EVERY person.

Since the death of Christ paid the price – which was my death – for my sin, then if I place my faith in Christ, it means that His death legally and morally pays the full price for my sin. This provides God for a just and legal reason for forgiving me. By faith, I accept His death as mine. And I accept His life as mine.

But there is a problem with this – IF this was all there was to salvation -- that is, IF salvation were merely a new legal classification God imputes to me because of Christ. THAT would create a problem. Can you see it? If all there was to salvation was God legally imputing to me the righteousness of Christ, then what would that do to actually change ME? Nothing. What would it do to truly birth me ANEW? Nothing. If God merely imputed to me the righteousness of Christ, what would this do to actually MAKE me righteous? Nothing.

What I am saying is this: Through faith in Christ, I am legally forgiven for sin – set free from the penalty of sin. But what does being legally forgiven do to set me free from SIN ITSELF? And even more importantly, what does being legally forgiven for sin do to restore me to God?

Now, if you think that the problem between God is man is GOD, then you might not see what I am getting at. If you think that what Christ accomplished by His death was to appease the wrath of God so that we could be set free only from His punishment, then you won’t see what I am getting at. But the Bible clearly shows that the problem between God and man is MAN. And Jesus did not die to set us free merely from the punishment of God. He died to set us free from SIN ITSELF. God has no wrath that needed to be appeased. God did not need to be reconciled to man. Rather, man needed to be reconciled to God.

Thus, man needed not only to be forgiven, but he needed to become a brand new creation. He needed to be set free from everything about the Adam race, and birthed anew. Justification by faith – as a legal act God performs – cannot do this. There is something MORE that is needed.

I’m not minimizing the Truth of justification by faith alone. No. It is the Truth. God DOES impute to me the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He DOES declare me righteous completely independent of anything about me. He imputes to me the righteousness of Christ based solely on what Christ has done. But I’m saying that if that was ALL God did, that yes, I would be LEGALLY forgiven for sin. But I would NOT be free from SIN ITSELF.

Now, it is here that many err. They will tell you that what you need to add to justification by faith is works. Or something else that we can contribute. But this is not the Truth. For if God legally declares us righteous, then I would submit that legally righteous is what we are in His eyes. The problem, though, remains. Are we REALLY righteous? If all God did was to legally declare us righteous, we would not be REALLY righteous. We would be the same as we were when we were unsaved. The only difference would be LEGALLY.

So is this Christianity? Is Christianity a bunch of unrighteous people who are legally declared righteous -- because they put their faith in Christ? Is there nothing different about Christians except in the LEGAL sense? If that were the case, then such folks really COULD sin – and do so BECAUSE grace abounds. They could sin because they are already forgiven and nothing they do could change it. This cannot be so. What are we missing here?

What is missing is resurrection life – Christ in us. Justification by faith is really based upon the DEATH of Christ as our substitute. But this is not ALL there is to salvation. For if we have died in Christ, we are raised with Him new creations.

The fact is, you are NOT saved by only the death of Christ. You cannot be saved without His death, but you are actually saved by His life:

For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Rom. 5:10)

Christianity is not merely BEING FORGIVEN. No. Christianity is CHRIST IN US. Christianity is NEW LIFE. You are forgiven, but you are also BORN AGAIN.  

Now things begin to come together. The fact is, God is able to legally and morally declare us righteous – yes, because Christ died for us as our substitute, but more so, God is able to legally and morally declare us righteous because through our death and resurrection IN CHRIST, Christ is actually IN US. In other words, God doesn’t merely give us a new legal classification because of Christ. Rather, He gives us Christ Himself.

If I put my faith in Christ, what happens? I RECEIVE CHRIST! I don’t receive merely a new legal classification. No. I receive Christ. And because I receive Christ – because Christ is now IN ME – God is able to declare me righteous. Sure. The embodiment of all righteousness is now IN ME. And I am one with Him.

God could not, and would not, declare people righteous without making the provision for them to BECOME righteous. We know that in ourselves we cannot BECOME righteous. But once Christ is in us, righteousness is in us – the only true righteousness there is. And we begin a process whereby we grow to be governed by HIS righteousness.

Thus, we see that the doctrine of justification by faith is really based on CHRIST IN US. Or, to put it another way, God is able to IMPUTE to us the righteousness of Christ because He has already IMPARTED to us Christ Himself. How could He do otherwise?

This is a Truth all through the NT:

But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. (1 Cor. 1:29-31)

And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom 8:10)

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (Rom 10:4)

Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1:11)

God does not give us a THING called eternal life. He gives us Christ, who IS the resurrection and the LIFE. Neither does God gives us a THING called righteousness. No. He gives us Christ – who is made unto us righteousness.

Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:20-21)

God cannot declare us righteous as an act independent of His Son. No. We are declared righteous because we have Christ in us. HE is righteous – He is OUR righteousness. Thus, on the basis of Christ, God is able to justly and rightly declare us righteous because we have been made ONE with Jesus Christ by faith.

One With Christ

Christianity is not a religion God has handed us. Rather, it is a spiritual union with God Himself through Christ. When I put my faith in Christ, I am planted INTO Christ. In fact, the Bible says that I am planted INTO His death and resurrection:

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: (Rom 6:4-5)

Jesus said, "I am the Vine and you are the branches." It is the same Truth. When we are saved, we enter INTO Christ – and Christ is in us. He then IS our life. Paul emphasizes this Truth of oneness with Christ throughout His epistles:

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (Gal 2:20-21)

You will notice that Paul does not say, "Christ was crucified FOR me." Well, he does say that other places. But here he emphasizes the deeper Truth, that we are crucified WITH Christ. And that Christ lives in us and through us. When we were saved, we were baptized INTO Christ – because fully immersed in HIM.

Have we recognized that because Christ died FOR us that we actually DIED IN HIM? We were PLANTED INTO HIM on His Cross, and this became OUR death. Not just legally, but REALLY. And that this fact – that we have died IN HIM – is the reason we are set free from sin? Legally, the death of Christ as our substitute set us free from the penalty FOR sin. But at the same moment, because we died in Christ, we are set free from the power of sin by OUR death in Him. This is why Paul is able to say:

For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. (Rom 6:5-12)

So Christians are NOT unrighteous people who are declared righteous. Rather, we are people who have died in Christ, and been set free from the power of sin, and who have the very righteousness of God IN US – in the Person of Jesus. No wonder God is able to justly declare us righteous! It is all because of Christ in us.

Obedience to God

If you are truly converted to Christ, and have His life in you, then why don’t you sin? – won’t God’s grace cover you? This is a common question. Doesn’t unconditional, and once forever forgiveness, mean we can sin all we want because we are under grace? Well, Paul ask, and answered that very question:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? (Rom 6:1-2)

What answer does Paul give to the question, "Are we to continue in sin because God’s grace will abound?" Does he say, "We won’t continue in sin because God will punish us?" No. Does he say, "We won’t continue in sin because the law tells us not to sin?" No – although God’s law is holy, just, and good. Rather, Paul says that there is one reason why we won’t sin – we are DEAD TO SIN.

Can we see that this is something that merely a legal declaration cannot accomplish? If God merely imputes to me the status of, "forgiven," and merely imputes to me the legal classification of righteousness, this won’t do a thing to make me DEAD TO SIN. But as we have seen, if I actually DIE IN CHRIST and am actually RAISED WITH HIM – well, then I will be dead to sin and alive to God. We are talking here about something that goes far beyond RELIGION. We are talking about having the Son of God in you. We are talking about the power of the Cross, and the power of His resurrection.

Thus, justification by faith is an essential Christian doctrine. But it is based on the reality that we have died in Christ and been raised with Him. It is based on the fact that Righteousness Himself is in us – and we are one with Him. You and I are declared righteous forever, based solely on both the death of Christ FOR us, and the life of Christ IN US. We are righteous because He is righteous.

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