As Protestants we believe in justification by faith alone. This means that our faith, and not our works, is central to our understanding of justification. Often as Christians begin grappling with this glorious truth they begin to ask some important questions, such as:

How can justification be simultaneously not of works yet also by faith?

If we were to simplify works we would put it broadly in a category of things that we do that we can rely upon before God. You could put anything in this bucket: morality, baptism, confirmation, church attendance, and so on. Works are things that we have deemed as good things, and for this conversation, have come to rely upon as the basis for our standing before God. So, if someone were to say, “I am justified by fait,” then we would want to ask what they mean. It is an important question, because what some people mean by faith is actually a work. In other words, they say that they are justified because of their perseverance in faith.

I like what Tom Schreiner writes in his Romans commentary: “Working is the result of one’s own capability, but believing relies on another.” It comes down to what faith is. Faith is trusting in God rather than trusting in self. If faith were trusting in self, then it would be works, because it has as its object the performance of self rather than another. Think about Abram in Genesis 15:6: he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. His faith was not in his ability to have more descendants then the stars of the sky but in God to make this happen.

Our faith is not a work, because faith trusts in the ability of another rather than relying on ourselves.

How then does my faith function in relation to justification?

If it is not a work, but I still do it, then how does my faith function? The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well: Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification” (WCF 11.3). This is key to clearing up the previous question and provoking us to joyful obedience to Christ. This word “instrument” helps us to see the connection. Faith is the instrument whereby we lay hold of Christ and receive all of his benefits. As Spurgeon says, “Faith justifies, but not in and by itself, but because it grasps the obedience of Christ.”

Remember after our first parents were barred from the entrance back into the garden of Eden? It was guarded by angels with flaming swords. This demonstrated the inability of anyone to work their way back to God. To tread this path would bring certain death. However, Christ came in our place as a man and he fulfilled all the obligations of perfect obedience to the covenant of works. He succeeded in every place that we failed and earned an eternal righteousness for his people. Through the obedience of Christ—his doing and dying for us—we have earned righteousness. Faith searches this out and lays hold of Christ, our eternal treasure!

How is my faith counted as righteousness?

Faith is counted (reckoned or charged or imputed) as righteousness because faith clings to Christ. Justification has to do with both the remission of sins and the granting of a new status (Rom. 3-5; 2 Cor. 5:19-21). Commonly referred to as the great exchange, Jesus was charged (imputed) with the sins of his people while on the cross so that his people could, in turn, be charged (imputed) with his righteousness.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Faith is the instrument of receiving the benefits of justification because it is by faith that believers lay ahold of Christ. This is how faith is counted to us as righteousness.

The fact is, that faith is counted to us for righteousness because she has Christ in her hand; she comes to God resting upon what Christ has done, depending alone upon the propitiation which God has set forth; and God, therefore, writes down every believing man as being a righteous man, not because of what he is in himself, but for what he is in Christ. He may have a thousand sins, yet shall he be righteous if he have faith. He may painfully transgress like Samson, he may be as much in the dark as Jephtha, he may fall as David, he may slip like Noah; but, for all that, if he have a true and living faith, he is written down among the justified, and God accepteth him. While there be some who gloat over the faults of believers, God spieth out the pure gem of faith gleaming on their breast; he takes them for what they want to be, for what they are in heart, for what they would be if they could; and covering their sins with the atoning blood, and adorning their persons with the righteousness of the Beloved, he accepts them, seeing he beholds in them the faith which is the mark of the righteous man wherever it may be. C. H. Spurgeon, “Justification by Faith—Illustrated by Abram’s Righteousness,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 14 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1868), 678.

Justification is a gracious act where God declares ungodly people to be perfect in his sight. In particular: God justifies the ungodly by grace alone, through faith alone, by declaring them righteous, on the basis of Christ’s obedience alone, to the glory of God alone.

Edwards is exactly right:

“God of his sovereign grace is pleased, in his dealings with the sinner, so to regard one that has no righteousness, that the consequence shall be the same as if he had.” Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 622.

What is the relationship between faith and receiving the benefits of justification? Faith does not look to self for what it can do but looks to Christ for what he has done. And in looking to Christ, faith is the instrument by which all of the benefits of justification are received.

How does this faith live? With humility, sacrifice, joy, and loyalty to Christ. It is only after we really get that faith is not a work that we begin to get to work.