Why is Denying Justification such a Serious Error?

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The doctrine of justification by faith alone on the ground of Christ’s imputed righteousness remains under direct attack in various quarters.  As someone who wrote his PhD dissertation on the doctrines of justification in Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach, I am convinced that modifying the biblical doctrine is a serious theological error. As a pastor of a local church, I have observed how the doctrine of justification humbles the proud, strengthens the fainthearted, gives assurance to the fearful, encourages vulnerable and motivates self-sacrificing love. To deny this doctrine is to deny the very heart and power of the gospel. May the Lord bring theological clarity on this doctrine for the sake of His own glory and for the good of His beloved bride.

Scriptural Reasons Denying Justification is a Serious Error

1. To deny justification is to deny the heart of the gospel. At the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells us that the gospel is powerful to save. He 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” (Rom 1:16). Then Paul explains why the gospel is the power of God for salvation. “For in it [the gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous [or the just] shall live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). Thus, justification or righteousness by faith for life is the power of the gospel itself. To deny justification by faith alone is to deny the power of the gospel.

2. To deny justification is to stumble. Paul explained why such a large portion of Israel was never saved. He writes, “What shall we say then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a a righteousness that is by faith, but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it [i.e., righteousness] by faith but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone” (Rom 9:30-32). Those who pursue a righteous status by their own works stumble over the gospel, which teaches that we are righteous, not for our own works, but only for the works of Another.

3. To deny justification is to receive the Bible’s curse. At the beginning of his letter to the Galatians, Paul issued a strong warning. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:6-8). One chapter later, in correcting the Galatian heresy, Paul tells us which doctrine we must not deny in order to avoid the curse: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ . . . by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:15-16). In justification, Paul tells us plainly, “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:10).

4. To deny justification is an offense that warrants church discipline. After warning against seeking justification by works, Paul tells the Galatians what to do about those who deny this biblical teaching. He writes, “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not inherit with the son of the free woman. So, brother, we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman” (Gal 4:30). Because denying justification is denying the gospel itself, those who do it should be “cast out” of the church.

A Common Objection Answered

In spite of all the passages cited above, some believe that justification by faith alone is a secondary or tertiary doctrine. They say, “We may be justified by faith alone, but we’re not justified by believing justification by faith alone.”  Using that rationale, they go on to say a person may be saved without believing this crucial doctrine. But consider three points in response to that assertion.

1. Paul says no such thing when dealing with those who were denying the biblical doctrine of justification. He did not tell the Galatians, “We may be justified by faith alone, but we’re not justified by believing justification by faith alone.” On the contrary, Paul said that those who believed and taught contrary to the biblical doctrine of justification were cursed and needed to be cast out of the church.

2. To believe in justification by faith alone is to believe that Christ alone saves. Paul says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21). Those who don’t believe in the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone are not resting in Christ alone for their righteousness, and therefore they are not saved. This is not to suggest that someone must be able to articulate all the nuances of justification to be saved, only that in his heart, he must believe the biblical doctrine for salvation.

3. Such an assertion undermines the faith itself when applied to any other central doctrine of Christianity.  “I may be saved by Christ alone, but I’m not saved by believing I’m saved by Christ alone.”  “I may be reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus, but I’m not saved by believing I’m reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus.”  Such a principle, consistently applied, would lead to full-blown inclusivism at best.

Further Reading on the Doctrine of Justification

Justification by Grace through Faith: Finding Freedom from Legalism, Lawlessness, Pride and Despair by Brian Vickers

Justification Reconsidered by Stephen Westerholm

The Doctrine of Justification by James Buchanan

The Pastor’s Justification by Jared Wilson

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20 Responses to “Why is Denying Justification such a Serious Error?”

  1. Isaac Shrum

    I think a slight distinction is necessary here, namely that “the gospel” and “justification by faith alone” are not completely synonymous terms. The gospel is the historical, objective work of Christ, whereas justification by faith is a subjective application of that objective work in a person’s life – much like regeneration or sanctification. Inextricably tied together, but distinct nonetheless.

    Reply
    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Isaac,

      Thanks for your comment. I believe the gospel involves all of God’s saving actions and promises, including the promise of justification by faith alone.

      Blessings!

      Reply
  2. Clayton

    I do not believe a person can earn salvation by their good works, in the sense that if a person can score enough “good works points” during their life in exchange for salvation from God. I believe that a person is justified by faith. But I also believe that saving faith is always accompanied by good works. I believe that good works are involved in the process of salvation because good works are involved with true, saving faith. Therefore, I do not choose to use the language of “justification by faith alone”. I understand the situation in the Roman church that gave rise to that articulation of the gospel by the reformers. However I do not agree with the approach taken by modern reformed Christians of making the use of the phrase “justified by faith alone” litmus test for a true Christian (that phrase only appears in the Bible once and is preceded by the word not). I’m not sure how far apart my understanding of the Gospel really is from sola fide proponents, but, in my experience, my unwillingness to affirm that phrase cuts off all attempts to establish any common ground.
    Also, it bothers me when Paul’s reference to “works of the Law” is assumed to be the same thing as good works in general. Paul had something much more specific in mind when he referred to works of the Torah, and I’m not sure there is anything in contemporary Christianity of any variety to compare to it.

    Reply
    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Clayton, thanks for the reply. I agree with you that saving faith is always accompanied by good works, and I agree that good works are involved in the process of “salvation,” which is broader than justification. These things are not in question. The root question in the doctrine of justification by faith alone is a question of law and justice. Can human beings keep the law and so answer the demands of justice? Or is a substitute Law-keeper necessary? Here’s another way of asking that question: Is the law of God an imperfect standard that can be kept by sinful men, or is the law a perfect standard which can never be kept by sinful men such that a substitute is necessary? Those who hold to justification by faith alone affirm the latter (see Ps 143:2; Eccl 7:20). We believe that Christ keeps the law as our substitute for our justification (Rom 5:19), and we lay hold of Him by faith alone (Rom 4:5). Having received Him by faith alone, we reflexively love Him, and thus necessarily grow in obedience to that same law (Rom 8:4) in order to commune with Him and to be fitted for the enjoyment of heaven (Gal 6:2, 8-10).

      Reformed Christians believe that those who deny justification by faith alone undermine the absoluteness of the law, turning it into a soft standard, and thus undermine the gospel itself because they make the gospel into a mild/easy law which can be kept by sinful men.

      Certainly Reformed Christians agree with James that Christians are not justified by faith alone in the sense that James intends, i.e., that faith without works is dead, and that faithful good works vindicate us. But James is in no way teaching that our good works meet the standard of God’s law, that they justify us on that basis, and so obtain the right and title to eternal life.

      Regarding “works of the nomos,” see Westerholm’s book listed at the end of the article above. He argues well that the phrase has application to any and all good works.

      Reply
      • Clayton

        I think where we can agree is that a person’s faith is their only basis for being in a relationship with God. I don’t get so caught up in the premise of law and justice. While the Scripture certainly use legal type language, I don’t believe the heart of the Gospel is forensic in nature. In other words, I don’t believe mankind’s basic problem from which we need to be saved is that we have broken God’s law. We certainly have done that – don’t get me wrong – but breaking the law points to a deeper problem. By sinning, we have broken communion with God and are on a path towards physical and spiritual destruction. We need to be reconciled in our fellowship with God, the Source of life. The divine-human connection is restored in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ takes on the consequences of our sin and in His death is our propitiation – in that because of the expiatory nature of Christ’s death, man can be cleansed from sin and God’s wrath averted. In Christ’s resurrection, human nature is sanctified and glorified. In turn, by partaking of Christ, man receives the benefits of Christ – cleansing from sin, sanctification and glorification (ultimately reconciliation with God). Justification, then, is about the basis on which people can be in a relationship with Jesus Christ. It goes so much deeper than just the forensic aspect you describe. So according to my understanding of justification, it makes no sense to say I am justified apart from the way I live my lives. Justification involves the whole person because we are joined to Christ as whole persons, body and soul.

        Reply
        • Clayton

          Sorry that should be “live my life”, not lives. I don’t believe in reincarnation :) I would be interested to know where you believe I am in serious error in my understanding of the Gospel.

          Reply
        • Tom Hicks
          Tom Hicks

          Thanks again Clayton. I agree that breaking the law of God and a severed relationship with God go hand in hand, and I strongly agree that justification is about the basis on which people can be in a relationship with Christ. I don’t see a need to bifurcate between the forensic and the relational. I don’t suppose you are suggesting any bifurcation either, though it seems you’re preferring the biblical category of relationship over the biblical categories of law and justice. Why would you choose one over the other? You’re right that justification and law ultimately entail more than a forensic element. But, if you get the forensic element wrong, you also get the relational element wrong. A holy God does not join Himself in relationship to that which is objectively unholy. God is to too pure to approve of evil (Hab 1:13). We need a federal head, a surety, a substitute who is holy in our place. Those who deny justification by faith alone seem to make God One who approves of evildoers. They seem to make God call evil good. They also seem to make imperfect (sinful) good works the means by which (or even the ground upon which) sinners retain their justification and adoptive relationship with a perfectly holy God. Ultimately, they fail to explain how God can be both the just and the justifier, something that Paul explains by way of justification by faith alone and imputed righteousness. Pax

          Reply
          • Clayton

            I don’t think I am bifurcating between the forensic and relational. I’m saying that the nature of the fall and redemption is ultimately ontological and not forensic. I believe the legal categories used in scripture are iconic in that they point to and help us comprehend the truth of the consequences of sin and the nature of our salvation.
            Also I affirm with you that no good work is required to enter into a relationship with Christ. So in that sense I agree with the concept of sola fide. However, I choose not to use the phrase “justification by faith alone” as a doctrinal statement because it seems to imply that obedience does not ultimately matter in regards to our final standing before God on the day of judgment. Our good works, as inadequate and imperfect as they are in and of themselves, are perfected in Christ and really contribute to our salvation. This does not compromise at all, in my view, the idea that God is both just and justifier, or that Grace alone is the means by which we retain our justification, because it is God Himself, the Holy Spirit, at work within us to will and to work for His good pleasure. But I do not subscribe to monergism – I believe that our cooperation with God’s grace is required and that it is possible for a person who has entered into relationship with God through saving faith to subsequently reject the Holy Spirit’s work within him or herself to such an extent that that person will not be justified before God on judgment day. Again, I believe that the way we live our lives matter with regards to our ultimate status before God. This fact seems abundantly clear in the Scriptures.

  3. The phrase πίστεως μόνον (“faith alone”) is actually only found in one verse in the Greek NT (James 2:24), where it is described as something that is not the case (however this fact is interpreted). As such it’s not the best example of something derived from “scripture alone.” Neither is the phrase “faith alone” a good equivalent to “…faith and not works of the law”: “X and nothing else” is not the same thing as “X and not Y” Frankly it’s a little hard not to “roll eyes” a bit when someone boasting of “sola scriptura” continues on to emphasize things like sola fide.

    Reply
    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Hi David, thanks for your comment. Those familiar with historical theology will understand that “faith alone,” like “Christ alone,” and “Scripture alone” don’t mean “X, Y, Z and nothing else” as you seem to suggest. Rather, each of the solas is making a particular theological point.

      The doctrine of “faith alone” does not mean that faith is alone, but that only faith, and no other grace, lays hold of Christ and His righteousness to receive the verdict of justification. Faith only is the organ that appropriates Christ and His benefits. This justifying faith, however, is ever accompanied with all other initial saving graces, including love, joy, peace, etc. Thus, justification is never without good works, if we accept that love is a good work. Love is always with faith; so, love is an antecedent condition of initial justification. “If love, then justification.” In this logical sense *only* we can say that we’re initially justified *by* love and thus we’re justified by good works. But love isn’t actually doing anything for justification. Love doesn’t lay hold of Christ. Love is not part of the ground or basis of our justification. Love is merely with faith. So though love stands in logical-conditional relationship to justification, love is not acting for justification.

      Faith *only* is the instrumental “hand” that receives Christ (it is both God’s instrument and man’s instrument). Christ’s righteousness *only* is the ground of justification. The ground of justification is what meets the requirements of the *only* standard of justification, the perfect law of God. Pax.

      Reply
      • Clayton

        Tom – Do you believe that our works matter in terms of our final standing before God on the Day of Judgment? And by “final standing”, I mean saved or lost, in our out, sheep or goat, etc.
        I ask this question because I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what you mean by the words you use. You believe like a lot of people I know and I’m trying to understand exactly where the disagreement is and how much common ground there really is versus just a difference in the meaning ascribed to certain words. I always sense that there is more agreement that appears at first but that conversation is cut off because we mean different things even though our language is similar (along the lines of the apparent contradiction between Paul writing we are saved by faith apart from works, and James writing that we are justified by works and not by faith alone).

        Reply
  4. Tom Hicks
    Tom Hicks

    Clayton,

    Yes, I certainly believe that our good works matter in terms of judgment day. The Bible is clear that we will be judged according to our works (Matt 12:37; 25:31-46; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Pet 1:17; Rev 20:11-15; etc.). Those who have good works on judgment day will go to heaven, and those who fail to have good works on judgment day will go to hell. Good works are necessary for entry into the fulness of eternal life in heaven.

    The key to understanding my view and the Reformed Orthodox and Puritan view is that the good works we have on judgment day *do not* meet the standard of God’s justice. The standard or measure of God’s justice is His perfect law, which no one on earth satisfies. Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “Surely, there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Psalm 143:2 says, “No one living is righteous before you.” Therefore, since the good works of believers on judgment day do not meet the standard of God’s law because they are imperfect and tainted with sin, they do not satisfy God’s justice, and they are not the basis on which God declares believers “just” on the last day. Here is how the last day verdict works:

    1. Ground of Last Day Verdict. Christ and His perfect law keeping (life and death) alone meet the standard of God’s justice on the last day. The standard is satisfied by way of Christ’s substitution. Jesus kept the law in our stead (enduring the law’s curse and securing the law’s blessing), and this is the only ground of the “just” verdict on judgment day.

    2. Evidential Means of Last Day Verdict. Our good works are mere proof and evidence that we have been joined to Christ who alone meets the perfect standard of God’s justice. Our good works no more satisfy the standard of justice than DNA test results satisfy the standard of justice in modern courtrooms. Evidences merely prove whether or not the law has been kept. Evidence is necessary in every court of law. In the Great Assiz, the evidence of our good works is necessary to silence every charge, acquit us of false allegations from Satan and our enemies, and to glorify Christ and His work, who alone is the basis of cause of all our good works.

    This distinction is not hair splitting. If our own imperfect good works satisfy God’s justice, then God’s just standard is imperfect (sinful), and God Himself is not holy. On the other hand, if God’s justice goes unsatisfied, but God treats us like we’ve satisfied it, even though we haven’t, then God is an unjust judge. Moreover, if Christ has not satisfied justice completely in our stead (by His active and passive obedience), then we have no reason to trust Him alone for eternal life; rather, logically speaking, we should trust Christ for His part (forgiveness), but we also need to trust our own good works as part of the basis of the verdict, which would give us a ground of boasting. Finally, if Christ has not completely satisfied the standard of God’s justice for eternal life, then there is no basis of assurance of final salvation, and we have no reason to believe that God will grant us every blessing of eternal life (including the life-blessings of enduring faith, persevering love and holiness to the end). Typically, those who deny the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (Arminians, Anglicans, Federal Visionists, etc.) also deny that saints necessarily endure to the end. This lack of assurance, in turn, strips us of strength to endure to the end. Full assurance is necessary to avoid sluggishness (Heb 6:11-12).

    Reply
    • Clayton

      Interesting. I certainly do not believe that our own sinful works satisfy God’s justice. But then again as I said, don’t believe salvation is really about the satisfaction of justice – that doesn’t seem to be a big theme in scripture overall, except for in some of Paul’s writing, which as I wrote earlier, was meant to be iconological language that points to a deeper meaning of salvation. Your view is very logical and systematic, but from my perspective it really misses the point. I guess I would just say that I don’t think articles like yours are very helpful because you aren’t dealing with where the real disagreements are – i.e. the presuppositions that inform our doctrines about justification. What’s the point in warning me of the dire consequences of not subscribing to your view on justification when my presuppositions have taken those beliefs off the table for me from the start? Too much theological debate today does not get to the bottom of where our disagreements are.

      Reply

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