The Nature of Justifying Faith

David VanDrunen
Sunday, September 2nd 2007
Sep/Oct 2007

The claim that justification comes sola fide was central to the debates of the Reformation. When the matter of sola fide is raised, however, attention tends to focus on the first of these words: alone. We remember that the reformers taught that justification is by faith alone while Roman Catholics countered that justification is by faith and good works. Thus, it may seem, both sides affirmed the importance of faith, but disagreed simply on whether anything had to be added to faith in order to secure justification. This is true in a sense-both sides did speak of the necessity of faith-but it can also be misleading. It is potentially misleading because the reformers and Roman Catholics disagreed about more than whether justification was by faith alone. They also had different understandings of the nature and definition of faith. In other words, the Reformation diverged from Rome not only in affirming that faith alone justifies but also in defining the faith that justifies in the way that it did.

This dispute is much more than an historical curiosity. Christians today who continue to affirm that faith alone justifies surely must take care to speak about this faith accurately. If we are to make such lofty claims for faith we ought to be sure to understand what it is. And disagreements about the character of justifying faith remain alive. Despite some development in Roman Catholic teaching on faith that may seem to bring it closer to the Reformation's understanding, fundamental differences still remain between them. In addition, in some contemporary controversies over the doctrine of justification in Protestant circles, certain writers have suggested an understanding of faith that also diverges from historic Reformation teaching. In this article, then, we will examine these different conceptions of faith and reflect upon the biblical teaching.

Different Definitions of Faith

The Roman Catholic tradition tends to emphasize faith as an intellectual act, that is, as a way of knowing. Often Roman Catholic theology distinguishes faith from reason. Reason is taken as a way of knowing that depends not upon supernatural revelation but upon what the human mind can know by its own intrinsic powers. Through reason, a person can gain true knowledge of many things about this world and even about God. Some things cannot be known by reason, however, according to traditional Roman teaching. By faith, then, a person comes to know things not by virtue of the natural light of reason but by divine revelation. Such knowledge rests upon the authority of God alone as he speaks in the Scriptures and especially in the church. Faith informs people of some things that can also be known by reason, but also of many things that are beyond the competence of reason. Some recent Roman Catholic theology, under the direction of the Second Vatican Council, has attempted to broaden this understanding of faith as a mode of knowledge, but this intellectual emphasis still remains.

For Rome, then, this faith as a mode of knowledge was deemed necessary, but insufficient, for justification. To faith must be added charity, or love. Faith that is "informed" by charity justifies while faith that lacks charity-a dead faith-cannot justify. This dead faith fails to justify not because there is something wrong with this faith in itself, but because the essential accompanying element of charity is absent. We will return momentarily to explore the significance of this fact.

In the light of this theological background, the reformers felt it was necessary not merely to insist that faith alone justifies but also to offer a different definition of justifying faith that better captures biblical teaching. They did not deny that there was an intellectual aspect of true faith. Faith certainly involves knowledge. But they were also convinced that faith is something more than this and, in fact, that this something more stands at the heart of what faith is. Three Latin terms often used to describe this enriched conception of justifying faith are notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia refers to an intellectual understanding about Christ and his gospel. Assensus refers to an intellectual assent to the truth of what is proclaimed in the gospel. But beyond these crucial intellectual acts is fiducia, an act not of the intellect but of the will, which may be described simply as trust. Much more than being a mode of knowledge, faith involves a sincere trust in Christ and his gospel for salvation.

Question and Answer 86 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism provides a concise and helpful statement of this insight. In response to the question of what faith in Jesus Christ is, the catechism answers: "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel." Not only must the mind grasp the things about Christ and his gospel, but also the heart must rest upon him as the perfect Savior from sins. This character of justifying faith as trust in Christ has prompted some theologians to speak of faith as "extraspective." The term introspective is familiar to most people: it refers to looking within oneself. Something that is extraspective, then, concerns looking outside oneself. That is precisely what faith as trust does: it looks outside of oneself (thereby forsaking all self-confidence) and rests upon another, the Lord Jesus Christ, who has done all things necessary for our salvation.

In light of this enriched understanding of faith, some important differences between Rome and the Reformation become entirely understandable. Because Rome tended to understand faith as a mode of knowledge, it naturally juxtaposed faith with reason. For Rome, faith and reason are two ways of knowing. In contrast, Protestant theology has much more commonly juxtaposed faith with works. Because the heart of faith is not knowledge but extraspective trust, faith is most importantly to be distinguished from those good works that one might perform in order to merit salvation. From this perspective, faith is not a way of knowing to be distinguished from reason, but a means for attaining eternal life to be distinguished from good works. Whereas good works seek a self-achieved eternal life before God, faith forsakes all self-achievement and rests entirely upon Christ, who has achieved eternal life for us. This is why, for justification, faith must be alone. If justification required faith to be supplemented by any good works of our own then faith would no longer be what it is, a forsaking of confidence in one's good works and complete confidence in the work of Christ.

This also helps to explain the different understandings of what a dead faith is. For Rome, as previously noted, faith is dead when it is not formed by charity, but this does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with the faith itself. For the Reformation understanding of faith, on the other hand, faith is dead when it merely knows but does not trust. This is an important difference. The reformers recognized that dead faith entails a defect in faith itself. Dead faith is not simply faith that lacks love or some other accompanying virtue, but a "faith" that is itself not at all true faith. Without that extraspective trust that rests upon Christ alone, "faith" that merely knows facts is unable to justify.

Before we turn to reflect upon biblical teaching about the nature of faith, it may be helpful to note another view of faith that has become popular among some people recently and also differs from historic Protestant teaching. This view, which has circulated among some associated with the so-called New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision circles, seeks to understand faith as encompassing the broader idea of faithfulness. Faith, in this view, involves not merely trust in Christ but also the range of obedient good works that faithfulness entails. Whereas the Reformation insisted that good works must flow from faith as its fruit, while distinguishing them clearly, this other view sees both trust in Christ and covenant obedience as parts of a broader faith (or faithfulness) that justifies.

Biblical Teaching on the Nature of Faith

The idea that faith entails extraspective trust in Christ can be seen in any number of biblical passages. It is important to remember that when Scripture refers to faith it does not always have exactly the same meaning of faith in mind. For instance, occasionally Scripture speaks of faith in terms of a general belief in the truth of God's Word (sometimes called fides generalis). Paul, for example, says in Acts 24:14: "I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the prophets." Also, the same New Testament Greek word that is translated "faith," pistis, can also mean "faithfulness." And thus we can find examples of Scripture using pistis in this way (e.g., Matt. 23:23). But what is critical to note is that in contexts in which Scripture teaches about salvation in general and justification in particular it consistently uses the term faith to describe the extraspective trust in Christ described above. This is what theology refers to as a saving, justifying faith.

A first point that may strike readers as patently obvious is that Scripture emphasizes again and again that true faith is faith in Christ. But however obvious this may seem to Bible-reading Christians, it is not a truth that should be quickly passed over. It is not uncommon to hear unbelievers in times of anxiety or crisis saying things such as "you gotta have faith." Yes, but faith in what? Biblical, justifying faith is not some general virtue by which someone retains a positive attitude in the face of uncertain circumstances but a very specific trust in something. Or, much better, trust in someone. Justifying faith does indeed believe all things written in the Law and the Prophets, as Paul states of himself in Acts 24, but even more importantly it rests in Christ himself and the promises offered in his gospel. Whosoever "believes in him" will not perish but receive eternal life (John 3:16); everyone "who believes in him" receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43); the righteousness of God comes "through faith in Jesus Christ" (Rom. 3:22).

This Christ-centered, gospel-centered faith is, in Scripture, a faith of trust, of confidence in the face of every earthly reason to doubt. Readers familiar with Paul know that Romans and Galatians are his two letters that deal most extensively with justification, and in both of these letters he looks back to Habakkuk 2:4 as a central statement of the doctrine of faith that he teaches: "the righteous will live by faith." The Hebrew word translated "faith" in Habakkuk 2:4 does not necessarily mean trust and, in fact, often means something different from this. But the context in which the prophet makes this statement indicates why Paul saw this verse as expressing his gospel so clearly. In contrast to their Chaldean enemies threatening to engulf them, who are proud (1:8), rude (1:10), puffed up (2:4), and who make their own might their god (1:11), God's people are called to live by faith. Not self-sufficient and self-absorbed, they are to find their confidence outside of themselves-even when the figs, vines, olive trees, and fields fail to yield their produce, even when the flocks and herds are missing from the fold (3:17). Israel had no earthly reason to be confident, yet the Lord was their strength (3:19). Here is faith, an extraspective trust in the face of overwhelming earthly odds against them.

And so Paul finds Habakkuk's brief statement about faith a marvelous summary of his gospel in Romans and Galatians. We may note how Paul describes this faith that justifies toward the end of Romans 4, in the midst of his larger discussion of justification by faith, and see how beautifully it corresponds to the sort of faith that Habakkuk commended many centuries before. In Romans 4:18-21, Paul writes concerning Abraham:

In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

Like the Israelites in Habakkuk's time, Abraham had no earthly reason to be confident about his future. He was almost 100 years old and his wife was barren-their medical odds of conceiving were zero. But Abraham was not looking to his own efforts or to earthly odds, but to God and his promises. This is indeed faith constituted by extraspective trust. Abraham was not deterred by "distrust" (the opposite of faith), but was "fully convinced" that God would do what he promised. What he could not do himself, God would do for him. This is the faith that justifies, as Paul explains in the very next verse: "That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness."

One matter that is important to note here is that faith, as extraspective trust, is different from every other righteous action that we perform. Unlike love, joy, patience, goodness, and all the other biblical virtues, faith looks outside of itself in order to rest upon and receive the work of another. Nothing else does this. That is why Scripture, and Paul especially, so emphatically and persistently draw such a sharp contrast between faith and works. Working-that is, fulfilling God's law and earning everlasting life by one's own accomplishments-and believing-that is, trusting in another to fulfill God's law and earn everlasting life on our behalf-are two distinctive ways that one might be justified by God. Earlier in Romans 4 Paul crisply spells out this contrast. "Now to the one who works," he writes in verse 4, "his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due." But, he continues in verse 5, "to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." The very next verse speaks of God imputing righteousness apart from works, and Romans 5:16-19 explains that the righteousness that one receives by faith is a free gift consisting of Christ's righteousness and obedience. Thus, here again is faith: not working or obeying the law so as to earn a reward, but believing in another and receiving from him that obedience that could never be self-attained.

It may be striking to realize just how often Paul makes this explicit contrast between faith and works, or faith and the law-at least a dozen times even by a conservative estimate. In one of these passages, Galatians 3:11-12, Paul uses the very Habakkuk 2:4 passage considered above to make this contrast. He writes: "Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.' But the law is not of faith, rather 'The one who does them shall live by them.'" That Paul distinguishes justifying faith from the demands of the law, from all of those things that a person would have to obey perfectly in order to earn justification oneself, is eminently clear here: the law is not of faith! Faith alone, Habakkuk's extraspective trust in the face of earthly adversity alone, not obedience to the law, is the means by which justification comes to sinners. Let one more familiar example from Paul suffice: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

Faith is trust. Faith is not one good work among others, but that which stands in sharp distinction from all good works in that it rests upon and receives the good works of another. Therefore, contrary to the claims of some contemporary writers, faith is not faithfulness. Faithfulness, and all other good works, will flow from faith as we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit. But for justification, God's declaration that we are righteous before him, one must make a choice: faith or works. Therefore only by faith alone will a sinner be justified.

By Faith, Therefore By Grace

One final point may help to put this discussion of the nature of faith in perspective. As we have considered the nature of faith as extraspective trust in Christ, perhaps it has struck you how amazingly appropriate faith is as the only means by which we are justified. Faith was not some arbitrary condition for justification that God decided to impose. It is not as though kindness or patience could have substituted just as well for faith had God decided to make one of these the only instrument of justification. No, God declared that justification of sinners would come by faith because faith is exactly the right choice for the job. Because it looks outside of itself and rests upon the work of another, faith is supremely compatible with a salvation that is gracious, that is, not self-achieved.

Paul makes precisely this point in Romans 4:16: "That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring-not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all." Because this is a justification by faith, explains Paul, it is a promise that comes by grace. Is it conceivable that one could be justified by obedience to the law and still, somehow, preserve the gracious character of salvation? Paul denies this very thing: "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4).


From the Reformation to the present day, the battle for a biblical doctrine of justification has turned upon an understanding of sola fide. Justification comes by faith alone, but this is not just any faith. Justifying faith, unlike any other virtue, and in defiance of every earthly discouragement, turns away from itself, places its confidence in the victorious work of Jesus Christ, and receives his perfect righteousness as an imputed gift. By this faith, and no other-by this faith, and not love, faithfulness, or any other noble deed-the sinner stands justified before God. The gospel message continues to be: forsake all confidence in yourself and trust wholly in Christ.

Sunday, September 2nd 2007

“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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