Justification by Faith: A Biblical Theological Perspective

A 6-video Exploration of Justification, Faith, the Protestant Reformation, and Competing Soteriological Views

Curated from a lecture series by Don Carson
In partnership with Logos Bible Software

Course Introduction

About the Course

In just under 1 hour of video, Don Carson will explore various aspects of a biblical-theological understanding of justification by faith. Students should prepare to watch the videos, take notes, and explore the ancillary material connected to each brief lecture.

About Dr. Don Carson

Don Carson (MDiv, Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto; PhD, Cambridge University) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and president of The Gospel Coalition. He has authored numerous books, and recently edited The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. He and his wife, Joy, have two children. View a chronological list of all publications.

  • TH351 Perspectives on Justification by Faith: Five Views on Its Meaning and SignificanceD. A. Carson, Edith M. Humphrey, Scott Hahn, Matthew Bates, Michael F. Bird

    This course from Logos Bible Software provides alternate perspectives in addition to the one provided in the following lectures. To continue your learning experience, learners should consider purchasing the remainder of the course content from lecturers with an alternative perspective.

    This course from Logos Bible Software provides alternate perspectives in addition to the one provided in the following lectures. To continue your learning experience, learners should consider purchasing the remainder of the course content from lecturers with an alternative perspective.

A Summary of Justification by Faith from a Biblical Theological Perspective

After this section, you should be able to:

  • Summarize a biblical theological perspective of justification


A Biblical Theological Perspective

In this series, we’re going to consider together what the Bible means when it talks about justification—in particular, what it means by speaking of “justification by faith,” by faith alone. And in the first instance, we have to understand how justification is used as a word, how it functions as a doctrine in the New Testament, how it is based on the entire Bible story line of men and women who are lost before God because of their sin, their idolatry. And the real issue of the Bible story line—the problem that holds the Bible’s drama together—is what to do with sinners who stand over against God, and the glory is that God reconciles sinners to Himself. He declares them to be just not because they are intrinsically, but because God, in His wisdom, sends His Son to bear their sin in His own body on the cross. And His righteousness He counts as theirs, and their sin He counts as Christ’s. And He declares them just but does much more than that. He renews them. He gives them new birth. He works in them by His Spirit. He leads them to repentance and faith, and He ultimately transforms them with resurrection existence on the last day—ready for the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness.

So the salvation that God provides is more than justification, which has to do with our status before God. It’s a bigger, holistic, transforming picture that not only declares our status different because of what Christ has done, but on the basis of that same cross work, so it works in us and transforms us that we become the people He wants us to be, He empowers us to be by His own resurrection power through the Spirit.

And ultimately, it’s worth thinking about those things as they developed and were clarified and were called to mind again at the time of the Reformation and how they work in our lives today.

What is Justification?

After this section, you should be able to:

  • Define justification and identify the central question that justification answers
  • Explain why justification is an eschatological act


The Bible’s Answer to the Big Problem

What is justification? I think it’s impossible to get a biblically faithful grasp of justification without understanding what it is that justification addresses. The question that justification answers is this: How can a human being be just before God? Because according to the biblical depiction of God, God stands over against us not only in love, but He stands over against us in wrath—not because He’s bad-tempered, not because He’s whimsical, but because He is so perfectly righteous, so perfectly holy, that He cannot abide sin. So if I am a sinner, if I am defiant of God, then how will I be reconciled to Him? How will I be acceptable to Him?

In other words, the big problem that the Bible addresses is not “How can I be happy?” (though it is concerned for our well-being) nor “How can I make appropriate relationships with people on earth, especially those whom I’ve offended in some way?” (although relationships are extraordinarily important in the Bible), but “How can I be acceptable before God?” That is the heart of the Bible’s problem—the problem that it addresses in the gospel.

And there are various ways that people advance for making it possible to be acceptable before God: try harder, be sincere, self-flagellate (whip yourself), make sure you do enough good deeds to make up for the bad deeds, weigh them in a balance. There are all kinds of ways of talking about that kind of thing. But the Bible’s answer is this: God declares sinners just, and He does so on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. God looks at me in my sin and He sees me for what I am, but He reckons my sin to Christ, and Christ cancels it in His own death on the cross. And He reckons Christ’s righteousness to me, and He declares, “That is entirely satisfactory. This pleases me. It’s the plan. It’s what I sent Christ to do.” He died for sinners, and He declares this particular sinner just before Him.

An Eschatological Act

Now, it’s important to see that in some ways it is an eschatological act—that is to say, it’s an act that takes place properly at the end. To put it almost whimsically, if I imagine myself dying and standing before God on the last day and God says, “Why should I let you in here?”—of course it doesn’t work just like that, but imagine it—if He declares me just and acceptable to go in, then that justification is an act bound up with the last judgment; it’s something that belongs to the end; it belongs to the eschaton, the last events of things. But the remarkable thing about justification is that I don’t have to wait till the end. Christ has already died. God already declares me to be just before Him. In that sense, we have entered into what some Christians have called across the centuries “inaugurated eschatology” or “realized eschatology.” The status of the end has already dawned now because Christ has died for sinners and we have access to this justification by faith.

The truth of the matter is that the Bible speaks of the wrath of God about six hundred times in the Old Testament, and the overwhelming reason why God is displeased with us, His image bearers, is not because we go to war or commit rape or rob banks or hit policemen on the head; it is because we’re idolaters. Everything flows from that. That is, we make up our own gods. When you come to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he spends about two and a half chapters (from Rom 1:18 to 3:20) demonstrating that Jews and Gentiles alike, all human beings without exception, are justly under the wrath of God and need to be forgiven. We need to have our status changed if we are to be reconciled to God, if we’re to be acceptable before God.

Romans 3:21–26

That brings us to Rom 3:21–26, which Martin Luther used to call the center of the Epistle to the Romans and, indeed, of the whole Bible. It talks about the fact that we are justified freely by grace, accessed by faith in Christ Jesus and His cross work on our behalf. And this entire plan, laid out in detail in those six verses, is so that God may be just and the one who justifies sinners. That is to say, He doesn’t come along and simply say, “Oh, I declare you just. I don’t care. No skin off my nose. I’ll just overlook it. It doesn’t matter to me all that much one way or the other. I’m bigger than your sin.” Rather, His sense of justice is so strong that satisfaction must be met, and He designs the plan Himself to send His Son to bear our sin in His own body on the tree, so that He can simultaneously be just, because the sin is actually atoned for, and the one who justifies the ungodly. That is what Rom 3:21–26 is all about: that justification we access by faith.

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What is Faith?

After this section, you should be able to:

  • Explain what faith is and is not


What Faith Is Not

To gain a biblically faithful grasp of what faith is, it’s probably best to remind ourselves what faith isn’t. That is to say, today on the streets of New York City or Seattle or wherever, there are many people who could answer the question, “What is faith?” but the answers they give are a long way from anything the Bible would say.

Synonym for Religion

In particular today, the word “faith” is used predominantly in two ways. Number one, it’s used sometimes as a synonym for “religion.” There are many religions; there are many faiths, and in that sense, “faith” is simply a synonym for “religion.” The Bible never uses the word “faith” in exactly that way.

Personal, Subjective, Religious Choice

Then, more commonly yet, “faith” means something like a personal, subjective, religious choice, and all of those words are important. That is to say, it’s subjective; it’s not grounded in objective reality; it’s not grounded in science; it’s not grounded in truth. It’s a personal, subjective choice so that you have your faith; I have my faith. There is no point arguing about them because these faiths are personal and subjective. There is no fact base or truth base to any of them. And the Bible never uses the word “faith” in that sense either.

What Faith Is

The Object of Faith Is True

No, faith in Scripture turns primarily on two things. First, faith means believing the things that are true; faith believes the one who is telling the truth. Let’s take an example. In 1 Cor 15, the apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthians, and clearly some of them have a hard job believing in such a thing as the resurrection. They’ve managed to believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, but they can’t believe there is a general resurrection from the dead at the end of the age. So Paul begins to push back, and he says, “Let’s suppose for a moment that Christ didn’t rise from the dead. What would follow from that? Suppose Christ is still in the tomb. What would follow from that? Well,” he says, “first of all, it means that the apostles and the other witnesses—five hundred of them or so—they were liars; they were saying things that weren’t true. They were either seduced or corrupt, but they claim that Christ did rise from the dead and that they saw Him. Some claimed that they touched Him and ate with Him and saw Him eat, and Thomas could swear that he saw the wounds in His hands. But they’re all either corrupt or liars if, in fact, Jesus did not rise from the dead.” So in other words, “faith” is belief in something that actually happened or in a promise that God actually makes.

“Not only so,” he says, “but you would still be in your trespasses and sins.” What he means by that is if you believe everything else in the Bible but don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then you believe that we stand under the judgment of God rightly and there’s no reason for thinking that Christ has paid for our sin, that He’s atoned for it, that God’s final status has been declared on us now, already, because Christ hasn’t risen from the dead; Jesus died and was damned as a criminal and damned before God, and that’s the end of it. So your faith is useless because you’re still in your trespasses and sins. Not only so, but your faith is useless because you’re believing something that isn’t true. “Your faith,” he says, “is vain.”

A few years ago, there was an archbishop of the Anglican church in Perth, Australia who was asked on a public broadcast, “Supposing we found the tomb of Jesus and, by whatever archaeological means, we discovered it really was truly the tomb of Jesus and that there was a body in it and that it turned out to be the body of Jesus, what would that do to your faith?” And the archbishop replied, “Well, it wouldn’t do anything to my faith. I believe that Jesus has risen in my heart.” But that’s not what the apostle Paul says. If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead when, in fact, in history, He did not rise from the dead, then you’re believing a lie. In other words, the Bible never encourages us to believe something that isn’t true. So when the Bible wants to increase the faith of its readers, it does not say, “Believe, believe, believe. Shut up, and don’t ask questions. Just believe!” Rather, the way faith is increased is by articulating and defending the truth.

And then, finally, it says, in fact, if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead when, in fact, He hasn’t risen from the dead, it means that your life is a joke. “You are, of all people,” he says, “most to be pitied.” You’re basing your whole life and value system and goals and living in the light of eternity and all the rest on something that isn’t true. In other words, if Christ has not risen from the dead, abandon Christianity; stop playing games.

So biblical faith is warranted, in the first place, by the validity of faith’s object. It’s not faith as a function that saves you; it’s the object of faith: Christ, the promises of God. The faith, to be valid, must have a valid object. That’s the first element of biblical faith.

Faith Is More than Belief

But in the second place, faith is more than simply believing that certain things are true. James has something to say about this in the second chapter of his epistle. He says, “Faith without works is dead.” In fact, a few months ago, I was in Sweden debating with a Catholic theologian who said, “I don’t understand you Christians who call yourselves evangelicals.” He says, “You speak of being saved by faith alone, whereas James explicitly says that ‘Faith without works is dead.’ Faith, all by itself, faith alone, is precisely what’s invalid. How do you respond to that?” My response is pretty straightforward. The kind of faith that James is talking about is not the kind of faith that Paul is talking about. They use the same word in different ways, which often happens in the New Testament.

Let me give you another example so you see I’m not making things up. When Paul says that Christians are “called of God,” for example, for him, the call of God is effectual; it works. If you’re called of God, you really are saved. Whereas, in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the call of God is something like the invitation of God: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” So in other words, the word “call” can mean slightly different things depending on the writer, depending on the context. That often happens. It’s because God has chosen to give His infallible Word through different human functionaries, through human authors.

So how does “faith” mean something different in James than in Paul? Well, James makes it very clear. He says, “Consider the demons. They believe there is one God.” In fact, he says, “You believe there is one God; you’re doing well. But then so do the demons, and it doesn’t save them, so why should it save you?” Satan himself believes that Jesus rose from the dead; he believes in the resurrection, but it doesn’t save him. In other words, merely believing the truth that Christ rose from the dead is not salvific; it’s not saving; it’s not transforming.

Faith Includes Trust

There is another element: faith, though it is based on the truth or on the promises and words of Him who is the truth, faith also involves self-abandonment to that truth or to the God who speaks the truth. It involves our trust in Him. Satan believes that Jesus rose from the dead; Satan never trusts Christ. Satan believes that there is one God; he doesn’t abandon himself to God. Genuine saving faith is not to be confused with works, but it is of a different quality than mere belief in propositions. The propositions must be true (that’s the first point), but in the second place, there must be a self-abandonment to God.

It has a kind of repentance built into it. It’s the very nature of faith to abandon myself to God and His word and His promises, or it’s not saving faith. So when Paul says to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,” he certainly means something more than “Believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and you will be saved.” That you might almost call “demonic faith”; that is to say, it’s faith that a demon can exercise without it saving anybody, whereas genuine saving faith not only believes the truth that God has revealed, but also it finds the believer abandoning himself, abandoning herself, to Christ in wonderful trust.

What is the Relationship between Justification and Faith?

After this section, you should be able to:

  • Articulate what the two terms “by grace alone” and “by faith alone” mean in the context of the five Reformation solas


Justification “By” Faith Alone

What do we mean when we say that justification is “by” faith, indeed by faith alone? I was brought up in a Christian home, so at a pretty young age, I was introduced to the five solas. The five solas connected with the Reformation were not invented as five solas during the Reformation. It was a way of summarizing a lot of Reformation themes a generation or two later. So we’re told: We’re saved by grace alone, through faith alone, all secured by Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, and all to the glory of God alone. So the five do hold together in a big package.

I recall, however, when I was a lad of maybe twelve or thirteen, wondering to myself, “How can salvation be by grace alone, by faith alone? That sounds like two ‘alones.’ If there are two ‘alones,’ then neither of them is ‘alone’ after all.” And of course, eventually, I grew a little to find that grace is the ground; it’s God’s free gift; it’s God’s unmerited favor poured out in the gift of His Son: Christ alone. Whereas to speak of salvation by faith alone, justification by faith alone, is not providing the ground, but the means of access. That is to say, we are declared just before God and have access to this declaration, to this status before God—the status which makes us, by God’s own decree, just before God—we have access to this status by trusting in Him, not by earning enough brownie points, not by trying harder, but by faith.

So if grace is the ground, faith is the means. Grace is the root anchor by which God has poured out His lavish justification upon us. Faith is the means by which we access it. We trust Christ; we trust the promises of God; we trust in His death and burial and resurrection to be the ground by which we are declared just before God.

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How Has the Reformation Affected This Idea?

After this section, you should be able to:

  • Describe the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on justification at the time of the Reformation
  • Describe the effects that the Reformation had on the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on justification


The Position of the Roman Catholic Church

What exactly was the place of teaching on justification and faith at the time of the Reformation? How has it played out to shape our views to this day? You have to remember that when the Reformation started, which we normally tie down to Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses on the chapel door of the Wittenberg castle—if that is exactly what happened—there was no official Roman Catholic position on justification. There was no condemnation for those who held one particular view of justification. There was a lot of amorphous difference of opinion. But there were some practices which, in retrospect, were massively corrupt, and none of them, perhaps, more striking than the selling of indulgences.


Now, indulgence theory was that it was a means of shortening punishments, temporal punishments—that is, punishments in purgatory, not in hell, punishments in purgatory for sins that had already been forgiven in some way through the authority of the church and the offering of forgiveness through the normal means of grace in the church’s life. But Tetzel probably went farther than that. It’s hard to be sure just how far he went, but in any case, it’s very difficult to ground the selling of indulgences in the Scripture. In one sense, to have a massive reformation start on something as relatively peripheral to the Christian faith as indulgences was a strange move, but the selling of indulgences became a trigger that raised a whole lot of other issues.

Luther intended to start an academic discussion at the minor university of Wittenberg, but, in fact, someone made a copy of it. The printing press had been invented only a few decades earlier. It was like Twitter today: suddenly it went everywhere; everybody was talking about. Everybody was reading the Ninety-Five Theses, and so once the toothpaste had been squeezed out of the tube, it was impossible to get it back in and things had to be addressed. In that connection, it became clear that the selling of indulgences in order to shorten time in purgatory, or possibly even in hell itself, was loaded for bear with corruption. The money was allegedly being used to rebuild a basilica in Rome. We know for a fact that about half of it was snaffled off by the local archbishop in [Mainz] because he needed to pay off some debts that he had accumulated in order to get the archbishopric. There were levels of corruption piled on levels of corruption. And meanwhile, at the lay level, some people were understanding that if you paid enough money, you could escape a punishment for your sin, and in fact, some were actually advertising free passes for the future.

Now, today in Roman Catholicism, indulgences are still proclaimed; they’re still promised. Both the current Pope (Pope Francis) and the preceding one (Pope Benedict) have offered plenary special indulgences, but they never speak of release from hell—only temporal punishments in purgatory—and never promise forgiveness of sins that have not yet been committed. But it is still official Catholic teaching.

Meanwhile, for those who were reading the Bible, which was also coming from the printing press increasingly then in English translation and in German translation, in lay (vernacular) translation, then people could see that there was no mention of purgatory. And the notion of free grace as the ground of our justification before God seems to run in a very different direction from theories and theologies that pushed us toward doing good works in order to secure God’s favor—good works as a kind of meritorious basis for our acceptance before God.

Other Roman Catholic Doctrines

So many doctrines were affected by the teaching on indulgences. What was the place of the prayers of the saints or appeal to Mary? What is the authority of Scripture and its teachings as opposed to the authority of the Pope and the magisterium (the teaching office of the Catholic Church)? Who has the right to interpret Scripture: just the magisterium, or can ordinary Christians read and understand? And these stories began to multiply, these analyses began to multiply, and so what started off as a relatively minor issue (namely indulgences) suddenly meant that there was a massive structure in play.

Effects of the Reformation


What is important to see is that in the wake of these questions being raised by Luther and Calvin—and later by Melanchthon and Bucer and all of the other Reformers; some less well-known like Oecolampadius and Zwingli and so on—what the Catholic Church did was, in effect, to hold its own Counter-Reformation (that is, a reformation against the Reformation). And they cleaned up some abuses, but also they hardened their positions, so that in the crucial Council of Trent a few decades after the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle chapel, the Council of Trent hardened its views. It now became explicitly the case that justification was not something that could be received by faith and claimed with certainty right now; it became a sin, a serious sin, to claim that you have assurance of salvation now—that justification is exclusively on the basis of Christ without reference to works and so forth.

Roman Catholic Church Today

If you want to see what the Catholic Church believes today, it is very much in line with the Council of Trent in their official documents. Read, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the latest version in English is 1993), and read the pages that are devoted to justification to see that I’m not making things up. There really is at the level of official documents a massive difference between historic, confessional Protestantism and historic, confessional Catholicism. At the lay level, there’s all kinds of mixed opinions, but in terms of official positions, the doctrine of justification was not only in Luther’s day, but also today, a dividing line between entire systems and structures of theology: how the Bible is to be understood and applied, how we are to think about Christ’s cross-work on our behalf, how we are to receive it by faith today.

Where Do Competing Understandings Lose Their Way?

After this section, you should be able to:

  • Describe three ways the Bible’s teaching on justification can be twisted
  • Discuss how our good works will be judged on the last day and give two examples


Three Mistaken Ideas of Justification

How can the Bible’s teaching on justification be twisted or torqued a bit until it becomes really quite misleading and abused? Well, let me mention three ways.

Justification as “Easy Believism”

The first imagines that justification is all of salvation and ends up with something like “easy believism.” I have heard people ask the question, “Are you saved, brother?” meaning simply: “Have you trusted Christ in order to be justified before Him?” But in the New Testament, justification is only one part of salvation. Salvation is the bigger term. It includes the wholeness of all that is secured by Christ and His cross-work. We are not only to be justified, but to be sanctified, set aside for God, and then growing in existential, experiential, personal holiness eventually we will be glorified with resurrection bodies in perfect harmony with God without any trace of sin or decay or corruption always, always loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. All of that is all secured by Christ and His cross-work, because out of Christ and His cross-work comes, for example, the new birth, and the new birth means that the Spirit has come into our lives and is working within us and transforming us as the down payment of the promised inheritance still to come. So justification settles our status before God. It does not refer customarily to everything that is bound up with our transformation, to everything that is bound up with our salvation.

Now, biblically speaking, you can’t have justification without sanctification. You can’t have justification and sanctification without glorification. You can’t have justification and sanctification without new birth. You can’t have any of them without also anticipating the glory of a new heaven and a new earth and resurrection existence on the last day. It hangs together as a total thing. But if you make justification virtually everything, then you can begin to think that (provided you have the right status with God) everything will fall into place: “I’ve believed Christ; I’m reconciled to God. My sins have been forgiven; He declares me just. That’s it. Now, I can live and die, living just like the world and the devil himself, and who cares? I’m safe. Once saved, always saved. That’s the end of the story.”

Well, the problem is that such justification has been cut off from the rest of life and existence; it’s been cut off from the rest of salvation. The Reformers would say things like this: Justification is by grace alone through faith alone. But where it’s real justification, that faith is never alone. It is always accompanied by transformed living so that, at the end of the day, I am not seeking to do good works in order to win my way into heaven—that’s returning to some brand of merit theology—but if I have truly been justified, if the Spirit of God has worked His way in me in new birth, if the Spirit of God is convicting me of sin and pushing me toward righteousness, it is impossible to imagine living without responding in faith and gratitude and adoration to the one who has changed our status before God. It is impossible to have justification without the rest of the package deal of salvation.

But there are some people today who have had such a cut-down version of what salvation is that I’m sure that there are many, many, many people who think that they are saved by which they mean “acceptable before God” because they mumbled a prayer at some point without necessarily demonstrating repentance and genuine faith or loving holiness or whatever.

The key to all sanctification, the key test, as it were, to seeing if we really are reconciled to God is if we find welling up within ourselves a deepening desire to be holy, to please God, to be just before Him and in our dealings with others. Unless our hearts have been changed, where is the evidence, indeed, that we have been justified before God? Justification is distinctive, but it’s never alone. So that’s the first mistake. If you misunderstand justification in that regard and treat it as the whole, you tend to end up drifting toward “easy believism.”

Justification as God’s Declaration that We Are in the Covenant


Then there are others who have argued that justification, rightly understood, is not God’s declarative act by which He declares His people to be just before Him on the basis of what Christ has done, but God’s declarative act by which He declares us to be in the covenant. Now, when it’s worded like that, you have moved the domain of discussion away from being just before God to simply being in the covenant—in the new covenant, presumably.


Now, I have several problems with that approach to justification.

In the first place, it ignores the fact that the justification word group really is tied up to the notion of justice. It’s not bound up in the first place with notions of belonging or corporate alignment or the like. To be declared just is to disclose a concern for being just as God is just, and to take it away from that toward being declared in the covenant means that you are thinking less about sin and righteousness and holiness despite the vast array of biblical passages that focus on such things, despite the fact that Paul devotes two and a half chapters to this theme in Romans before he comes to the theme of the atonement. This reduction of salvation to merely belonging in the covenant finally does away with too many contributing, competing themes that are bound up with the holiness and justice of God.

Some have weakened the second position today to say that justification is God’s declarative act by which we are just (we are declared just) and in the covenant, so that it’s got two elements to it. Well, I would say that all of salvation certainly is bound up with being in the covenant of God, just as it’s bound up with sanctification and transformation on the last day, but justification by itself, it seems to me, is restricted to justification and that if you try to put too much into justification or focus it into the realm of belonging to the right people of God, it seems to me that you end up finally diluting justification to the point where it is not functioning the way it does in the writings of the New Testament.

Speaking of Two Justifications


There is a third, a somewhat related, way of making the doctrine weaker, perhaps corrosive; that’s to speak of two justifications. Now, I know where this comes from. In this view, you’re declared just with a kind of inaugurated eschatology that I’ve talked about before. You’re declared just now by faith in Christ, but then, after you become a Christian, there are many opportunities for sin, and on the last day, you will be judged on the basis of your whole life lived—that is, not only your trust in Christ, but how you’ve lived, how you’ve behaved. After all, there are about forty passages in the New Testament which seem to talk about God weighing Christians on the last day on the basis of how well they’ve done or what they’ve done—the deeds that they’ve done in the flesh. And this and some other biblical phenomena have generated the view that there are two justifications: a justification now, but a kind of round two, just before the end, bound up with the justice of God, the judgment of God on the last day, and you’ve got to pass both of them to get in, as it were.


But that means, therefore, that during this life as a Christian, from our first experience of justification to the end, you can never really have assurance of faith because you’re always going to be worried that maybe you won’t quite make the grade when it comes to the good deeds you are supposed to do between now and the second justification. So it begins to affect the doctrine of assurance; it begins to affect how real the first justification really was and a whole lot of other things.

Correctives to Mistaken Ideas of Justification

So what do we do with those passages that speak of God looking at us and our works and our deeds, taking them all into account on the last day? What do we do with passages like that? I have found that two bits of theological reflection have been helpful to me in addition to working my way through the relevant forty or so texts. Obviously, we don’t have time to work through those texts now. Let me drop in a couple of suggested ways of thinking about these things.

Two Men, Two Rewards

C. S. Lewis somewhere pictures two men. One man wants a woman, so he goes to the red-light district of town, and he pays his money. And he has a woman; he has his reward. The other, he falls in love with a young woman, and he courts her, treats her with honor and dignity, earns the respect of her family, courts her all the way to the wedding aisle. And not only are the two of them joined in holy matrimony, but the two families come together. It’s a great celebration, and he has his reward. So both the men get their reward.

What’s the difference? The difference, Lewis says, is that in the first case the payment and the reward are so incommensurate that the transaction is obscene. In the second case, the reward is nothing other than the fulfillment of a relationship. It’s the consummation of a relationship, and I think that our deeds are in that latter category.

Our Works and God’s Grace

I have a friend—he’s a pastor of a church in the South—who likes to tell the story of the time when he was a good deal younger, and one of his children, a little lad of three-and-half or four, came outdoors on this autumn day to help his dad. His dad was raking up leaves. In the blustery, cold, biting wind, leaves were being raked up into big piles, and he came out, this little lad, wanting to help. And he was bundled up to the neck in a coat that was too big for him and a hat on his head and gloves and so on. The father said, “Sure, you can help,” and he gave him a small rake. “All you have to do is pile some of these leaves together into this big pile here, so that eventually we’ll bag them and get rid of them all.”

And you can guess what happened. The little lad took his rake and started swinging it around merrily in all directions, and the leaves that had been piled up were now scattered hither and yon, taken by the wind and blowing all over the place again. The father didn’t say anything. After ten or fifteen minutes, the little lad said to him, “Daddy, I’m cold. I’d like to go in now,” which was probably a considerable relief to the father. And so he said, “Well, why don’t you go in and your mom will probably give you some hot chocolate.” So the little lad went off contentedly, and as he was going up the steps into the house, he said, “Daddy, don’t you think you should pay me? I think I should have at least a quarter.” And the father smiled, and he said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you two quarters for your help.” And that, the pastor says, is a bit the way God treats us. We go on with our Christian living and ministry, swatting leaves and throwing them hither and yon, making a mess, and at the end of the day, God turns around in mercy and still says, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You’ve been faithful over a few things. I will make you ruler over many things. Come and enter your master’s happiness.” It still is a matter of great grace that God works even through people like you and me.

  • TH351 Perspectives on Justification by Faith: Five Views on Its Meaning and SignificanceD. A. Carson, Edith M. Humphrey, Scott Hahn, Matthew Bates, Michael F. Bird

    This course from Logos Bible Software provides alternate perspectives in addition to the one provided in the following lectures. To continue your learning experience, learners should consider purchasing the remainder of the course content from lecturers with an alternative perspective.

    This course from Logos Bible Software provides alternate perspectives in addition to the one provided in the following lectures. To continue your learning experience, learners should consider purchasing the remainder of the course content from lecturers with an alternative perspective.