“Justification is still the article of the standing or falling church.” So were the words of the late professor John Murray. Of course, Murray was playing off of Luther’s famous words, “If this article stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.” While seeking to explain the way in which this doctrine is perverted, Murray explained, “If justification is confused with regeneration or sanctification, then the door is opened for the perversion of the gospel at its center. Justification is still the article of the standing or falling church.” Whoever loses sight of the truth of Scripture regarding our justification before God loses sight of the unmerited grace of God in the Gospel. When we forget about our justification by faith alone in Christ alone we inevitably put ourselves back on the “never enough” hamster wheel of good works. However, when we remember the truth of our justification before God, we live in the peace of God (Rom. 5:1) and rejoice in the hope of glory (Rom. 5:2-5) as we willingly offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1-2).
The questions regarding the doctrine of justification and its relationship to good works are no where dealt with in summary form so well as they are in the great Reformed Confessions and Catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms give us the most succinct articulations of the doctrine of justification and its subsequent related doctrines in follow Q&A format:
Heidelberg Catechism Q.&A.
60. How are you righteous before God?
61. Why do you say that through faith alone you are righteous?
62. Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?
63. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
64. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?
Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.&A.
Q. 33: What is justification?
Westminster Larger Catechism Q.&A.
Q. 78: Whence arises the imperfection of sanctification in believers?
There is no more important question you could ask yourself in this life than that regarding how you can be righteous before God. The Heidelberg answers that question so well when it says,
“Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us the clearest definition of justification in all of church history, when, in answer to Q. 33, it says,
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
Of course, one must then ask why justification is by faith alone. Again, the Heidelberg Catechism supplies us with the answer. It says,
“Not because I please God by the worthiness of my faith. It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me righteous before God, and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than through faith.”
Having stated the nature of justification and defended the instrumentality of justification (i.e. faith alone), the Heidelberg Catechism goes on to take up the question regarding the relationship between justification and good works. After all, good works are a necessary part of the Christian life as Scripture makes it clear that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14) and that God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6-7).
The first question in regard to the relationship between justification and good works has to do with the place of our works in our justification. Heidelberg Q. 62 asks, “Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?” The answer?
“Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.”
Someone might object and say, “Well, I certainly believe that it is true that prior to a man or woman’s conversion, his or her best works are imperfect and stained with sin, but those which are brought about by the Holy Spirit are not.” The first half of Heidelberg Q&A 62 has explained that God requires entirely perfect righteousness.
Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 78 explains why we must understand the phrase “even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin” as having regard to even the works that the Holy Spirit produces in us in our sanctification:
“The imperfection of sanctification in believers arises from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.”
Here again, we are faced with the clear teaching of Scripture about God rewarding the good works of believers in this life and in that which is to come. How are we to reconcile that with the teaching about justification by faith alone? Heidelberg 63 explains,
“This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.”
Finally, Heidelberg 64 takes up the question about justification and antinomianism. If our justification is freely by God’s grace–by which we are declared righteous before Him only because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by grace alone–doesn’t that encourage lawlessness in the life of a professing believer? The answer?
“No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.”
Let’s meditate deeply on the truth of our justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Let us fight to protect this most precious doctrine from all of the malicious attacks that the evil one seeks to level against it through the sophistries of false teachers. That is a hill worth dying on. After all, justification is not only the article of the standing or rising church–it is the article of the standing or falling soul!