Examining a foundational doctrine of Christianity.
In English class we learned that a phrase like faith alone is a conceptual unit but not a complete sentence. It lacks a verb and fails to answer the standard questions who, what, where, when, why, and how. But in the 1500s faith alone stood for the complete sentence “Justification is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.”
When faith alone is removed from its historical context, it becomes the source for heated debates. Some fear that it does away with law, obedience, and Christian responsibility. Others insist that faith alone is all-sufficient and that requirements are, indeed, done away with. Charges of legalism and cheap grace abound. In between these extremes are a multitude of varying opinions. But many concerns are removed when the Reformers’ meaning defines the term.
When people read faith alone with definitions the Reformers did not intend, misunderstandings also arise. Some think of when one becomes a Christian, and others think of how to be a Christian. Oftentimes both sides agree that justification is not by works. The miraculous, instantaneous change from being lost to being saved is solely by God giving us what we do not deserve. Many individuals, on both ends of the debate, agree that faith alone in Christ alone is the way God adds to and keeps His family. They reject requiring lists of how to be added to the experience of how to become.
Oftentimes, when the generic word saved is used to complete faith alone, the reader is unsure as to which aspect of saved is meant. The familiar distinctions between becoming saved (justification) and living like a saved person (sanctification), and ultimately being saved (glorification), remain clear even as grace and faith are infused in each. Obviously, unless one dies at the moment of becoming a Christian, the goal is for future actions, attitudes, speech, thoughts, and beliefs to be Christian until God finishes His work in us (Philippians 1:6).
Historically, two major opinions of justification were offered by theologians: 1) to make just and 2) to declare just.
If justification means to make just, “infusing” righteousness, then it . . .
- includes a person voluntarily receiving God’s transforming work in their life to remove the sin nature;
- includes the infusion of just characteristics;
- is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone — an incomplete statement, omitting important ingredients like baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Justification would also mean good works and obedience to God’s law are necessary.
But if justification means to declare just, “imputing” righteousness, then it . . .
- is separate from the process of one adopting God’s standards as their own;
- is solely Christ’s righteousness imputed by God’s decree.
Also, justification by God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone is a complete statement, with no additional ingredients. Personal merit, good works, and obedience to God’s law are not part of justification.
Of these two options, the Bible clearly and consistently points to justification as God’s declarative and, admittedly, transformative act. God declares that His righteous Son’s substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf justifies those who believe on Jesus:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).
Further, our booklet, Law of God: a Blessing for the People of God, declares similarly:
. . . Christians are not under the law and they are not saved [justified] by observing the law. . . . “A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28). . . . Our relationship with God is not denominated by or predicated on the law – any law. It is not based on the Ten Commandments! . . . We are the redeemed people of God through accepting Jesus as our Savior. . . . no law can serve as a means to bring us into a saving relationship with God. Grace alone and the righteousness that comes by faith can accomplish that (pp. 12-14).
Faith alone and the Reformers
The view of the sixteenth century Reformers was different from what was then taught by the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers insisted that a person is declared just by God, through faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus Christ — plus nothing and plus no one — is God’s way of justifying the world. Justification is thus our acquitted, righteous status in and through Christ (Romans 4:9-13; Philippians 3:9). We have no ways to barter with, impress, or manipulate God. Moral living, emotionalism, and religious intellectualism all fail to reach up to God. God reaching down to us through His Son is the only way fallen humanity can be reconciled to Him.
What did the Roman Church actually teach about justification five hundred years ago? Some say the difference between Protestant and Catholic views on the teaching remains wide. Others suggest the entire Reformation movement was the result of a misunderstanding. A number of ecumenical meetings in recent years among Catholics, Lutherans, and leaders of other Protestant denominations have concluded that these believers really aren’t as far apart as previously thought. If this were the case, wouldn’t the Council of Trent (1545-1563) have reached that conclusion? Instead, the council members wrote a response condemning the Reformers. It is hard to know exactly what was taught in the 1500s by the opposing sides in the debate. But it seems that the Roman view agreed more with justification being “to be made just” and the Reformers with justification being “to declare just.”
Faith alone and CoG7
The Church of God (Seventh Day) did not learn the faith alone concept from the Reformers. Both groups learned it from the teachings of Jesus, His disciples, and the apostle Paul.
And therefore it was imputed to him [Abraham] for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 4:22—5:1).
We clearly teach that God’s justifying work is “for us also.” Justification is for you in contrast to being because of you. The Church of God’s book This We Believe explains the difference:
Thus there is no merit, work, or ceremony prescribed in Scripture that is required for salvation. Indeed, when people attempt to be justified in God’s sight or “earn” their salvation through human work, merit, or ceremony, attempted apart from God’s free gift of salvation by grace through faith, their deeds are offensive and worthless to God (see Isaiah 1:10-20; Galatians 3:1-5). Grace is not grace if it is awarded for work (Romans 11:6); thus salvation, which is only available through grace, cannot be earned. To be sure, good works are a beautiful and necessary expression of loving obedience to God and are the joy, duty, and destiny of those who have been saved (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 11:1; John 14:15; 1 John 5:3; Ephesians 2:10). However, they are a response to and a result of, not a means to or a cause of, the free salvation found in Jesus Christ.
Our faithfulness to the teaching that justification is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone has distinguished us from some of the Sabbath-observing denominations throughout history. The preciousness of this faith alone doctrine blesses us with the confidence of salvation (Philippians 1:6; Jude 24). We are spared the mental anguish of wondering if our lives measure up enough to be rewarded a home in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ life measured up: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Christ alone is worthy! We can happily anticipate being part of the great multitude from every nation, kindred, people, and tongue singing, “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.”
This is our hope, not because of us, but “for us also.”