The Doctrine of Justification

J. A. O. Preus
Saturday, March 2nd 2002
Mar/Apr 2002

"What's the big deal?" I hear that a lot as a Council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Why are we harping so much on the doctrine of justification? What's at stake and why are we so nitpicky about it? Well, good question. Of course, we are not the first to "harp" on this doctrine. We think of ourselves as following in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin and the other great reformers of the sixteenth century in focusing on what counts most. That's why we talk so much about Reformation theology. According to the reformers, the gospel of God's free grace for sinners on account of Christ is central to our faith. We're simply trying once again to restore that to the preeminent place, where it belongs.

We also criticize the state of contemporary Evangelicalism. The reason for our concern is that we're convinced the reformers were right when they put the gospel at the center of their theological thinking. This understanding should be clear especially among people who call themselves evangelicals. You see, the Greek word for "gospel" is euangelion, from which we get our English word "evangelical." Properly speaking, to be evangelical means to be gospel-centered. Yet, much of contemporary Evangelicalism has been untrue to its name by supplanting the gospel-centered character of Reformation theology with a man-centered focus, such as our response of love or our obedience or the like. This is what has caused us to be so vociferous in our harping. Let's take a look at some of the rich truths of the Reformed faith.

The Gospel and the Doctrine of Justification

The classical Reformed and Lutheran traditions have maintained that the doctrine of justification is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the article upon which the Church stands and falls. What we're really saying is that the gospel, that is the good news that God justifies sinners by grace, through faith on account of Christ, is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. So, in the minds of the reformers, the doctrine of justification is synonymous with the gospel. Now, when they spoke that way they intended to affirm the absolute necessity, for the Church's continuing existence, of the message of the gospel. The message that sinners are justified before God by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith alone, apart from works of the law is absolutely necessary for the Church to be the Church.

According to the reformers, this gospel (or the doctrine of justification) stands over the Church as the criterion of the Church's authenticity. It is the judge of what is truly the Church and what is not. It is the presence of this gospel, in its verbal or visible (i.e., Word and Sacraments) forms that identifies the Church of Jesus Christ and distinguishes it from every other organization or sect. Where this gospel is, there you have the Church. Where you do not have evidence of this gospel, you do not have visible, and therefore trustworthy, evidence of the Church. It is true that only God can see into the heart to determine if a person has faith. God can discern the true Church in its inner (or invisible) sense. But we cannot see into the heart. We are limited to what we can see. We can see and hear the gospel. So, the gospel, or the doctrine of justification, becomes the only visible or audible indicator of the existence of the Church.

However, the gospel not only serves as an infallible mark of the Church, it also stands under the Church as its only firm foundation. Luther said that without this gospel the Church cannot stand, not even for one hour. It is the substance of the faith, the substratum, and the foundation upon which theology, the Church, and faith stand. So, it not only tells us where the Church is, but it is also the very substance of the faith, which nourishes and sustains faith and keeps the Church in existence.

The Reformation leaders of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used to speak of this doctrine as the "cardinal article" of the Christian faith. This comes from the Latin word cardo which means hinge. The idea here is that the doctrine of justification is like the linchpin upon which the entirety of Christian doctrine hangs, or around which it revolves. This word was used to speak of the earth's axis, or as a chief fact upon which other facts depend. Without the hinge, the door falls. It loses its proper axis. Without the foundation, the Church simply falls apart. It's very simple: Without the doctrine of justification you lose everything.

So, where do we find out about this chief doctrine? The reformers insisted that the only proper source and norm for theology was Holy Scripture. In fact, they were so adamant that only the Bible be used as the source material for theology and practice that they used the phrase "Scripture alone" (sola scriptura). Deciding what will be our cardinal article of faith is not something that we choose. Instead, the Bible tells us what it is. The reformers believed that the purpose of Scripture was to tell us of God's gracious and miraculous provision for the salvation of lost and sinful humanity in the person and work of Jesus Christ. His suffering, death, and resurrection form the heart of the scriptural teaching. Jesus himself affirmed this when he said, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me" (John 5:39).

The Justification of Sinners: The Divine Solution to the Human Problem

Now that we've seen that the doctrine of justification is crucial, let's take a closer look at it to see its essential components. The Apostle Paul does a very helpful job of identifying these elements in his masterful summary of the doctrine of justification in Romans 3:21-24: "But now a righteousness [or justification] from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness [or justification] from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."

In the passage, Paul identifies four integral parts to the doctrine of justification. One is justified before God:

1. Apart from Law2. Freely by his grace3. Through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus4. Through faith.

Here, then, is a good working definition of the doctrine of justification (or the gospel) according to Romans 3: We are justified (or saved) apart from our own merits, by grace, on account of Christ, through faith.

As we seek a clearer definition of the gospel, it may be helpful to clarify what this gospel stands against. In other words, we can discern its meaning by coming to grips with what it opposes. If the gospel can be viewed as the solution to the problem of the Law, then we must understand the Law ultimately as a concern coram Deo, that is, before God (see Rom. 3:19-20). The gospel is only the good news that Scripture says it is if it comes as the solution to the problem of God, his wrath, his condemnation, his estrangement from us because of our sin. In a sense, the real human predicament is the God who judges; the God in the light of whose law we stand accused, or in the light of whose life we are dead, or in the light of whose perfection we are defiled. There are many ways to say it, but no matter what language one uses, we end in the same place: on the wrong end of God's righteous anger (Eph. 2:3).

To be sure, the effects of the Law are also a problem among people. Sin is a social, anthropological, psychological, and perhaps even genetic problem. But sin is not first or even primarily this-as sinful humans, our real problem is God. We need a solution to the problem of God, to the problem that has a name, the problem who is God. It may sound strange, even blasphemous to say it that way, but our real problem as sinners is not merely that our sins are harmful to us or to our neighbors. Our real problem is that God is angry and personally offended by our sins. God's anger and wrath need appeasement. Our real problem has a name, and his name is God (see Rom. 5:10, in which we are spoken of as God's enemies).

The gospel, or the doctrine of justification, describes the solution to just such a problem. This means that the gospel is, in the first instance, a theological category: It describes how it is with us before God. It tells the good news of what God has done for us in Christ to solve the problem of him. This is a point made abundantly clear by Paul in his extraordinary presentation of the gospel in Romans 3. He says, "There is no fear of God" (v. 18), "the whole world [is] held accountable to God" (v. 19), "no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law" (v. 20), "but now a righteousness from God … has been made known" (v. 21), and so forth. The most important result of Christ's perfect obedience is that God's wrath was turned away and he turned a favorable gaze upon us (2 Cor. 5:19).

Thus, the gospel first of all finds its center in the work of God in Christ. This is its primary defining component of meaning. The doctrine of justification tells what God has done in the historical events associated with the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ in first-century Palestine. It is, therefore, as the Reformation theologians said, extra nos, that is, outside of us. Its focus and center is in Christ.

Secondly, it refers to the work God did for us (pro nobis), in the historical actions of Christ on the cross. Although we rejoice in what God is doing in those whom he justifies, that is more properly referred to as the fruit or result of the gospel (that is, sanctification), rather than the gospel itself. The doctrine of justification, of course, brings about abundant fruit (Gal. 5:22). And that is very important for Christians, since we have been saved for a life of service to God and to one another (Eph. 2:10). However, the gospel is about what God did for us in Christ, not what God does in us or through us as a result of what Christ did.

Third, since it is genuinely "gospel" (i.e., good news), the doctrine of justification stresses the sole sufficiency of Christ's work on behalf of the world on Good Friday and Easter (solo Christo). It is a word of God located specifically and narrowly in Christ's obedience (active in his living and passive in his dying). This good word was consummated at the cross and announced victoriously at the Resurrection of our Lord. Seated at the right hand of the Father in glory, the risen Lord awaits the last day when he will return to judge the living and the dead.

Thus, in the fourth place, the doctrine of justification recognizes and genuinely honors the fact that our favorable standing before God is due solely to the grace of God (sola gratia). Placing the gospel at the center, therefore, means that we will give credit for our salvation nowhere except to God in Christ. The credit is laid nowhere else: not to God's transforming work in us, nor to our faith or good works or love or obedience. The gospel gives the glory to God alone (soli Deo gloria), for God's grace is the sole sufficient cause of our salvation before God.

Finally, speaking of the gospel in a way that places Christ at the center means that we must acknowledge that a person's salvation is brought about alone through faith (sola fide, see Rom. 1:17), as a means of receiving the benefits of Christ's work on the cross. This means that one can only very carefully speak of faith as a "cause" of salvation. We are not saved because of our faith. We are redeemed through faith as a means of receiving the already perfect redemption worked out by Christ on the cross. Only in this way does Christ receive all the glory for our salvation (Rom. 11:36).


We have seen that the doctrine of justification by grace on account of Christ through faith is an essential. It is the hinge upon which it all hangs and the foundation upon which it all stands. The reason it's so important is that bound up with it are such central Christian and biblical truths as Scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and faith alone.

We on the Alliance Council are committed to these truths and to their proclamation in our world today. We believe that much of contemporary American Evangelicalism has lost its center in the gospel. The doctrine of justification is, to put it simply, central. Nothing in us, not even the work of God in us through faith, can take the place of what Jesus did for us on the cross in history. Our sole purpose is to restore this beautiful doctrine, and the solas that form its heart, to the central place given to it by Scripture and the reformers. Only this precious teaching gives full glory to Christ and maximum comfort to troubled consciences.

Saturday, March 2nd 2002

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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