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Editors’ note: 

This series explores key doctrines of the Christian faith and their practical ramifications for everyday life. Earlier in this series:

Several Protestant Reformers asserted that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. The more I understand of the gospel, and the needs of my fallen heart, the more I feel that I tend to stand or fall each day based on whether I’m living out of my justification.

Why is justification so important? What difference does it make amid our day-to-day grind? How does it speak good news to the Christian burdened with an anxious conscience, as well as to the non-Christian haunted with a sense of meaninglessness?

To learn more about justification, and how to live in its power each day, I corresponded with Tom Schreiner, professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Those of us who have listened appreciatively to Schreiner’s several Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) presentations on justification will be excited to learn about his forthcoming book Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters (Zondervan, 2015).

What is meant by the phrase “justification by faith alone”? Where in the Bible would you turn to learn more about this doctrine?

Justification by faith alone means that we stand in the right before God by faith instead of on the basis of our works. In the classical Protestant formulation of the doctrine, justification doesn’t mean make righteous, but rather declare righteous. When we speak of righteousness by faith alone, it doesn’t follow that faith is our righteousness. Rather, our faith unites us to Jesus Christ who is our righteousness. Our righteousness, then, isn’t in ourselves but in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us by faith so that our forgiveness of sins and righteousness are gifts of God.

The classic texts supporting this teaching are Romans 3:21–4:25 and Galatians 2:16–3:14. We see a powerful illustrations of this teaching in Jesus’s forgiveness of the sinful woman (Luke 7:36–50) and the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14).

The doctrine has often been misunderstood. We shouldn’t conclude that good works are unnecessary or unimportant, for good works are also necessary for justification. But they are the necessary fruit or evidence of justification (James 2:14–26). Our good works aren’t the basis of justification. Since God demands perfection, the righteousness of Christ alone stands as the basis of our righteousness.

In your own life, or in your ministry, what difference does the doctrine of justification by faith alone make?

It is the best news in the world, for if justification is by faith alone, then there is hope for every sinner—no matter how far we have fallen away from God. In my ministry, I want to regularly proclaim the good news that our righteousness doesn’t reside in ourselves but in Jesus Christ. If the great sin is pride, as C. S. Lewis says, justification by faith alone reminds us that we have no reason for self-worship, for all the glory, praise, and honor go to Jesus Christ for our right standing with God. I am tempted to boast in myself and rely on myself every day, but this doctrine reminds me that my only boast is in Jesus Christ as the crucified one (Gal. 6:14).

For Christians struggling with anxiety about their assurance of salvation or the state of their conscience, what difference does justification by faith alone make?

When J. Gresham Machen, the great Presbyterian New Testament scholar and founder of Westminster Seminary, was dying, he remembered justification by faith alone. When we think about death, we often think of our sins and fear the judgment and wrath of God. But Machen said as he lay dying, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” In other words, Machen relied on Christ’s righteousness and not his own works as he anticipated meeting God.

This is the salve we need to apply to our anxious consciences. Our plea before God is not what we have done, but what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. When fear of judgment strikes, we remember the words of Romans 8:33–34. God will not accuse us, for he has justified us in Jesus. He will not condemn us, for Jesus has died for our sins, been raised as the vindicated one, and now reigns as the triumphant one interceding for us.

Is there any sense in which even secular people seek to be justified by their works? If so, how would this doctrine affect how you shared the gospel with an atheist?

All of us in one way or another try to validate our existence based on what we accomplish. At the bottom of our drive to succeed is a desire for self-worship, and this applies to both the atheist and to the architect. Everything we do in life, from how we are evaluated as preachers to the grades received in school, is assessed by our works. Such evaluations, of course, aren’t wrong. None of us, however, finally finds satisfaction and joy based on what we accomplish; there is always an emptiness, a sense of incompleteness and futility in our own work.

So, we can say to an atheist, “Your sense of the meaningless of life is due in part from the desire to make yourself great. You will never find meaning and joy this way, because there is only One who is truly great; there is only One who deserves all our worship and praise. You will only find rest when you rest in him and in the righteousness he gives to those who trust him.”

Martin Luther wrote, “The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.” What advice do you have for helping this truth sink more deeply from our heads to our hearts?

Luther also said we must recognize that we are never masters of this truth but always students. It isn’t a formula that we can reproduce. We learn about justification by faith alone in the furnace of life. Recognize that we prone to forget about this truth. We aren’t justified as those who perfectly understand or live out the truth of justification by faith alone. We forget it constantly! We strive and strive, and then we realize afresh and anew as the Holy Spirit works in our hearts: “Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to thy cross I cling.”

Daily meditating on the gospel and Scripture helps. Reading Luther’s great 1535 commentary on Galatians also assists us. Regularly hearing God’s Word preached faithfully is a great boon. We need daily reminders of our poverty and our riches. If we ever think we graduate from this school, we are in mortal danger of forgetting we’re justified by faith alone. Thankfully, God brings trials to remind us, as Luther said near his death, that “we are beggars. That is true.”

The doctrine of justification by faith alone has been attended by a lot of controversy in the church recently, especially in connection to the so-called “new perspective on Paul.” Could you recommend a couple of resources for people who want to engage this discussion?

The best long book to become acquainted with the issue is by Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Eerdmans, 2003). I think the best short book is Westerholm’s more recent Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Eerdmans, 2013) [review].