Justification by Faith Alone

Watch: Justification by Faith Alone: Martin Luther and Romans 1:17


In this short essay I will validate the Reformation view of salvation which says justification is a forensic or legal verdict of acquittal from God that someone is declared righteous in His site based on the atonement and merit of Jesus Christ alone received by God-granted faith alone. We will then refute Rome’s idea that becoming right with God, that is, justification, is not a forensic declaration but instead an infusion of righteousness into the soul whereby someone is made righteous and that good works are involved in attaining, maintaining and re-gaining this justification.


“If you don’t have the doctrine of justification by faith alone, you don’t have the gospel.”

~ R.C. Sproul~

Rome denies justification, that is, becoming right with God or passing from a state of condemnation to one of acceptance with God, is a legal verdict of acquittal that someone is declared righteous based on Christ’s work. Instead Rome falsely claims that justification is when someone is “made just” (Decree Concerning Justification, Session Six, Ch. 3, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder, [TAN Books and Publishers, 1978], p. 31). In Canon 24 on justification from the Council of Trent we are told that justification is justice or righteousness received (Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 24, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder, [TAN Books and Publishers, 1978], p. 45). For Rome justification, then, is an infusion of righteousness into the person’s soul making them righteous, not a legal verdict that someone is righteous in God’s sight legally based on Christ’s work alone being applied to the believer’s account. Thus, when asked if the word “justified” in the New Testament in the context of salvation ever refers to being “declared righteous” or if it always means “to make righteous,” Catholic scholar Robert Sungenis claims it “always” (Not by Faith Alone: The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification: An Interview with Robert Sungenis, eds. Ryan Glomsrud, Michael S. Horton, Justified, [Modern Reformation, 2010], p. 61) refers to someone being “made righteous.”

Justification in the New Testament, as it concerns someone passing from a state of condemnation to one of acceptance with God, that is soteriological contexts, consists of a forensic verdict of acquittal based on Christ’s merits. This justification is not infusion of righteousness into the soul making someone righteous. Romans 3:19-20 proves justification is a legal declaration since it adds “in his sight”: “19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20). The notion of legal judgement present in this text seen in the references to men being held accountable, mouth’s being stopped and justification being in God’s sight shows that the justification is also of a legal nature in that it is a declaration of acquittal from God in regards to judgement. Similarly, Galatians 3:11 says: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law” (Galatians 3:11). ). It makes sense to say no one is declared righteous before, or in the sight of God by the law. But it makes no sense to say no one is made righteous before, or in the sight of God by the Law. When someone is before God or in God’s sight and law and sin are involved, He pronounces a judgement or verdict. He does not make someone righteous in such a context. In Romans 5:16 we read, “. . .the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Romans 5:16). Since condemnation (a legal determination) is the antithesis to justification here, justification is to be seen as a forensic (legal) declaration and not people being made righteous. Romans 8:33-34 says: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died. . .” (Romans 8:33-34). It’s because someone is justified by God that no one can lay a charge or condemn them (legal language). This is because the legal declaration of acquittal and pronouncement of rightoues, i.e., God’s justification, has taken place instead. In Luke 10:29 a man unsuccessfully tried to justify himself before Christ. This refers to the man declaring himself to be righteous or just, not infusing righteousness into himself or making himself righteous. Luke 7:29 the people justified God. This of course refers to people declaring God just, not making Him just, which is impossible since God already is just. Speaking of the final justification on judgement day Jesus says in Matthew 12:37: “for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). Once more we see justification as the opposite of condemnation which is a legal declaration, not people being made righteous. Now, also in the Greek dik word group is the word “righteousness” (Gk. dikaiosunē). This term also has a forensic character in regards to soteriology or salvation. Although the word does not always refer to justification but can simply refer to personal holiness, it is still important to discuss. Romans 9:30-32: “30What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. . .” (Romans 9:30-32). Leon Morris points out, “The forensic idea is very strong here. The Gentiles did not seek before God that righteous standing which the Jews sought by the way of works of merit. Nevertheless they attained to righteousness, namely the righteousness that is of faith. The Jews who were very anxious to establish themselves as righteous before God failed to do so because they came by way of law works instead of by that of faith, which is the way God has appointed” (Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross: Third Revised Edition, p. 275). In light of all this evidence, when text after text speaks about men being justified (Luke 18:9-14; Romans 3:24-25; 4:4-5; 5:1, 9; 8:30; 10:10; Galatians 3:24; Titus 3:7) or saved/inheriting eternal life (John 3:16, 18; 3:36; 6:40, 47; 20:31; Romans 10:11-13; 5:24; Ephesians 2:5; 8-9; Titus 3:5; 1 John 5:12) in the context of becoming right with God during their life, what is clearly in view is a once-for-all legal declaration from Him of acquittal based on the merit of Christ received by faith. This justification is not about someone being made righteous, though, those justified are also progressively sanctified separately (see Ephesians 2:8-10).

Lexical evidence.

Professional grammarians and lexicographers are important to consult on the meaning of justification. In regards to legal contexts, which is how the Bible clearly presents justification, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which is the standard in word studies right now, notes that in Greek Hellenistic writings including Philo and Josephus “the word passes into more general use in the sense of ‘to regard as fair or right’. . . . ‘to treat someone rightly’. . . . ‘to judge’ (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily, Vol. 1, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964-1976], pp. 211-212). With regard to the LXX, the same source says the word “is constantly used in the positive sense of ‘to pronounce righteous,’ ‘to justify,’ ‘to vindicate’” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily, Vol. 1, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964-1976], p. 212). This source says the same of its use in the Apocrypha, Psuedepigrapha and Synagogue (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily, Vol. 1, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964-1976], pp. 212-214). With regard to the New Testament use of dikaioō this source confirms, “In the NT it is seldom that one cannot detect the legal connexion. . . . The LXX, with its legal emphasis, has obviously had the greatest influence on the NT usage. . . . In Paul the legal usage is plain and indisputable. The opposite of δικαιῶν [justifying] is κατακρινῶν [condemning] (R. 8:34). For Paul the word does not suggest the infusion of moral qualities” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily, Vol. 1, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964-1976], pp. 214, 215). The Baur, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature affirms dikaioō, in regards to key salvation passages in Romans 3, 4, 5 Galatians 2, etc., means “to render a favourable verdict, vindicate . . . justify, vindicate, treat as just . . . be acquitted, be pronounced and treated as righteous. . .” (Walter Baur, F. W. Danker, William D. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, [University of Chicago Press, 2000], p. 249). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words notes dikaioō means “to declare to be righteous, to pronounce righteous,’ (1) by man, concerning God, Luke 7:29 (see Rom 3:4, above)’ concerning himself, Luke 10:29; 16:5; (2) by God concerning men, who are declared to be righteous before Him on certain conditions laid down by Him” (E. W. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., [Thomas Nelson Inc., 1996], Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words p. 339). Nowhere does this source say the word refers to someone being “made righteous.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament states dikaioō means “to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be. . . . especially is it so used, in the technical phraseology of Paul, respecting God who judges and declares such men as put faith in Christ to be righteous and acceptable to him” (Joseph. H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, [Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], p. 150). On the same page Thayer rejects the idea that the word means “to make righteous.” Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words states that dikaioō means “to declare righteous, justify” (William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, [Zondervan, 2006], p. 374). This source does not say it means “to make righteous” either.

Patristic support.

In his essay in the book Justification in Perspective, Nick Needham has shown that early church fathers recognized the legal nature of justification in regards to soteriology, in opposition to the papal idea of it meaning being “made righteous.” For example, the early church writer Origen equates justification with “to deem righteous,” not “make righteous”: “To be justified before God is completely different from being justified before men. That is to say, in comparison with other men, one man can be deemed just if he has lived relatively free from faults. . . . in comparison with men they are deemed pure and holy; but they are not able to be pure in comparison with God” (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 3.6.8). Origen also uses justification as a synonym for forgiveness, acquittal, pardon and remission which coheres with the Reformed view of justification as a legal verdict of acquittal: “If anyone acts unjustly after justification, it is scarcely to be doubted that he has rejected the grace of justification. For a person does not receive the forgiveness of sins in order that he should once again imagine that he has been given a license to sin; for the remission is not for future crimes, but for past ones” (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 3.9.4). In fact Needham shows fathers would differentiate justification with sanctification, while Romanism on the other hand equates the two. For example Marius Victorinus wrote, “We know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith and the faith of Jesus. . . . It is faith alone that gives justification and sanctification” (Marius Victorinus, Commentary on Galatians, 2:15-16). Moreover Needham shows certain fathers speak of justification as the antithesis of condemnation, demonstrating its legal nature. For example, Tertullian stated, “He always justifies the poor, condemns in advance the rich” (Tertullian, Of Patience, 7). Moreover Methodius stated, “Set me free from the yoke of condemnation, and place me under the yoke of justification” (Methodius, Oration on Simeon and Anna, 8). Hilary of Poitiers said, “Is He who died other than He who condemns us? Lastly, is not He who condemns us also God who justifies us? Distinguish, if you can, Christ our accuser from God our defender. . .” (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 10.65). Needham remarks, “‘Justifies’ here is the counterpart of ‘defends’ and the opposite of ‘accuses’ and ‘condemns,’ in the setting of divine judgement” (Nick Needham, Justification in the Early Church Fathers, ed. Bruce L. McCormack, Justification in Perspective, [Baker Academic, 2006], p. 30).

Biblical Case Justification is a Once-for-all Verdict not a Process

Contrary to Rome’s false teaching that justification is a process and not a once-for-all legal declaration, we see many texts which affirm the Reformation position. This justification, a legal acquittal whereby one becomes right with God, is a one-time past completed event according to Scripture.

Hebrews 10:14. Proof of the possibility of the εἰς τὸ διηνεκὲς ἐκάθισεν ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ θεοῦ, Hebrews 10:12, from the needlessness for a fresh sacrifice, since Christ has already, by the sacrifice once offered, brought in perfect sanctification for His believers.

The accentuation: μιᾷ γὰρ προσφορᾷ, merits the preference to μιὰ γὰρ προσφορά, to which Bengel is inclined, and which has been followed by Ewald, since by the former the words acquire an immediate reference to Christ.

τοὺς ἁγιαζομένους] them that are sanctified, sc. as regards the decree of God. The participle present is used substantively, as Hebrews 2:11, without respect to time.


Hebrews 10:10. The writer to the Hebrews clearly expresses justification’s solidity when in Hebrews 10:10 he wrote, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Now, the word “sanctified” does not always carry the common meaning of growing in holiness. It can also refer to, as D. A. Carson notes, “‘positional sanctification’ or ‘definitional sanctification’. . . . Thus the Corinthians are said to be ‘sanctified’ (1 Cor 1:3), even though by the standards of customary theological discourse they are a singularly unsanctified lot. Indeed, Paul says that they are ‘sanctified’ and thus ‘called to be holy’ (1 Cor 1:3)’” (D. A. Carson, Reflections on Salvation and Justification in the New Testament, JETS 40/4, [December, 1997], p. 583). In these cases sanctification refers to being set aside for God or possessed by Him. This idea goes hand in hand with forensic justification. And here in Hebrews 10:10 we are told that believers have been sanctified, that is, positionally in that they are now possessed by God, through the sacrifice of Christ once for all. In other words the cross is what makes people Christian possessions of God. The word for sanctification which based on the once-for-all atonement of Christ is in the perfect passive participle, which again refers to a once-for-all action (Joseph. A. Fitzmyer, Romans, [DoubleDay, 1992], p. 395). Therefore, believers have been positionally set apart as Christian possessions of God in a once-for-all sense.

Hebrews 10:14. The same author then affirms, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). Here sanctification is being used in a progressive sense of being made holy. So what is being said is that although true believers continue to grow in sanctification or holiness, nevertheless they have been perfected for all time in God’s sight based on Jesus’ atonement. In other words, in God’s eyes Christians are perfected for all time legally, though we nevertheless grow in holiness in real time. Peter O’Brien notes the word “all time” in the sentence, “he has perfected for all time,” “emphasizes the permanent effects for believers” (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010], p. 357). This perfecting, O’Brien confirms, concerns “forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of their consciences, so that they are consecrated to God’s service. . .” (Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010], p. 357). This demonstrates justification, which is what this text is talking about since we’re clearly in the same conceptual world, is a once-for-all time action, for it is because one is justified that they are seen as righteous or perfect in God’s sight. God has done this for believers in an “all time” final way. Thus, Rome’s false opinion that a true believer can lose his right standing with God and then gain it over and over is clearly erroneous.