The Function of Faith in Justification
Before we poor sinners consider the function of faith in justification, let us first remind ourselves from the Word of God where we and all mankind in our natural condition stand spiritually before a just and holy God. Scripture clearly teaches us that all men — including us— are, by nature, without any righteousness before God (Romans 3:10), without any spiritual good in heart and soul (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 7:18a), continually inclined only to evil (Genesis 8:21; Romans 7:23), spiritually blind in both heart and intellect (Ephesians 4:18; I Corinthians 2:14), spiritually dead and captive in Satan’s power (Ephesians 2:1-2; Acts 26:18), and enemies of God, with a perverted will in constant voluntary opposition —unable and not desiring to change this opposition— both to the Law of God (Romans 8:7-8) and, with the loss of free will and knowledge in spiritual matters, even to the Gospel of Christ (I Corinthians 1:21, 23; 2:14; John 6:44a).
On account of this state of total depravity, Scripture clearly teaches that all men — including us— by nature, are justly condemned by God as sinners (Romans 3:23, 5:18a, 19a), are under His wrath and alienated from Him (Ephesians 2:3; 2:12; 4:18), and are doomed to death and damnation in hell for eternity (Romans 5:12; 6:23; Ezekiel 18:20; Matthew 25:46a). “Now we know that what things soever the Law saith, it saith to them who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19). So we learn that we and all mankind cannot make ourselves right with God; for “by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight; for by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (v. 20), the Law which thoroughly and fully works God’s wrath and indignation on account of our sin (Romans 4:15).
Since we are therefore helpless to help ourselves, God grants full and free pardon to all mankind as the loving, free and unconditional gift of His favor to the wretched and undeserving. First, this justifying grace is grace in Christ, purchased and earned by the Redeemer’s propitiation, or satisfaction, of God’s justice on behalf of all mankind (I John 2:2) — having earned perfect righteousness for all mankind by His active obedience, that is, by His perfect keeping of the Law in man’s place (Romans 5:18-19), and having paid the penalty of their guilt by His passive obedience, that is, by His having suffered the pains of hell in man’s stead (John 1:29). Secondly, justifying grace is universal, in that the favor unmerited by us and the love of God earned by Christ Jesus extends not merely to some, but to all men without exception. Christ is the Savior of all men (I Timothy 2:5-6); God earnestly desires the salvation of all men (v. 4; II Peter 3:9); and Christ secured the salvation even of those who ultimately reject the grace of God (Titus 2:11; II Peter 2:1). Thirdly, justifying grace is serious and efficacious, in that God seriously desires to bring all men to saving faith by the Gospel and to preserve them by the same means through faith unto salvation (Matthew 23:37; Acts 2:38; 7:51).
Now, “saving faith,” simply defined, is trust or confidence directed to an object, and not an act of virtue or a show of proper attitude. What is the object of this trust or confidence? The object of justifying faith is not merely “God” as He exists; for even unbelievers “know” God based solely on their natural knowledge of Him (Romans 1:19-21); some even believe “that there is one God,” which “the devils also believe and tremble” (James 2:19). Neither is the object of justifying faith the Law of God, for “no man is justified by the Law in the sight of God” (Galatians 3:11).
No, the object of justifying faith is “the Gospel of peace, …glad tidings of good things” (Romans 10:15), the wonderful news that, because of Christ’s vicarious atonement, by which He rendered to the Father complete satisfaction for the sins of all mankind and perfect obedience to the just demands of His holy Law in the place of all sinners, God, as the gift of His mercy and grace, “reconcil[ed] the world unto Himself,” fully and freely forgiving their sins and imputed to all men righteousness in His sight (II Corinthians 5:19, 21; Romans 5:18–19).
The function of justifying faith is not to earn the grace of God (Romans 11:6), not to demonstrate one’s proper disposition to it (Ephesians 2:9), not to make God’s justification effective (Romans 3:24-26). Rather it is merely the receptive instrument by which one “lays hold on” the grace of God in Christ (Cf. I Timothy 6:12). Justifying faith is simply confidence of the heart in the mercy of God which remits sins for Christ’s sake, totally apart from the works of the Law, confidence whereby the sinner clings to the assurance of God’s forensic pardon or amnesty for all mankind and personally receives full absolution from all his guilt and from the punishment that he himself deserves and full assurance that he is now accounted righteous before God. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28). “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Note well how this teaching is in stark contrast to that of the Church of Rome, which anathematizes or curses the Scriptural function of justifying faith, stating in the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 12: “If anyone saith that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified, let him be anathema.” This dreaded curse is still the Pope’s official position today. Beware!
The role of faith in justification is not a new teaching, as, also in the Old Testament, justification was always by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith; for “he [Abram] believed in the Lord; and He [the Lord] counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; cf. Romans 4:3). Christ’s righteousness was imputed to Abram by faith, not because of his righteous works (Romans 4:1-8). “To Him [Jesus of Nazareth] give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
It is “the righteousness of God without the Law …being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Romans 3:21) that brings us undeserving sinners the divine assurance that “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). For the true and certain reason that God is faithful and that His promises in His Word are sure (Numbers 23:19; II Corinthians 1:20; II Timothy 2:13; Hebrews 10:23b; I John 2:25), a poor sinner who clings in childlike confidence to God’s declared justification of all mankind in Christ as pronounced in the Gospel (Romans 3:23-26; 4:5; II Corinthians 5:19-21) has the sure and certain assurance of that justification as his own personal possession (Romans 4:16; 8:38-39; Philippians 1:6; II Timothy 1:12).
May we, not only this Reformation season but also throughout our lives, hold fast in the humble hand of faith the chief Scriptural teaching of justification by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake, totally apart from any works of the Law, making its precious comfort our very own by confidence in the Lord’s promises and assurances of our justification!
— Jason A. Mabe, Seminarian
(Submitted through his Pastor)