You may have heard the expression “Justified by Faith.” Yet this truth is most adequately summarized by this
full formula: Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone on account of Christ alone. With help from
Luther’s Small Catechism
we will look at each individual part of this summary, discovering why correctly
understanding each is vital to rightly understanding the biblical teaching of the way in which God justifies sinners.
The way in which God forgives and restores people to a right relationship with Himself, as illustrated in
parables by Jesus (Matt. 20:1-16 & Lk. 15:11-32) and more specifically described by Paul (Rom. 3:21-4:8), is what
the doctrine of justification is all about. With an eye toward grasping the basic idea of how you can find a gracious
God, I will now turn to questions found in Luther’s small catechism.
Two key words must be clearly understood at this point. Declare and righteous. In the Old Testament,
righteousness does not primarily refer to moral perfection or some higher moral virtue, rather righteousness is a
personal concept that is used to describe personal relationships wherein all obligations and responsibilities between
related persons are fulfilled. The righteous person is the one whose relationships are rightly ordered.
“declared” is understood in the context of a pronouncement issued in a court of law. The righteousness that
justifies (Rom 3:21,22) comes from God and is declared, reckoned, credited, imputed as yours; it comes from
outside of you and remains external to you.
For you to be declared righteous in God’s eyes then does not mean that you are made morally pure or virtuous,
it does not mean that you are now empowered to fulfill all the obligations and responsibilities of the relationship.
It does mean that God the just judge looks at you and says that your relationship with Him is rightly ordered; all
obligations and responsibilities are fulfilled. You are Justified (saved, redeemed, reconciled, born again, etc.).
Justification by Grace alone.....
What induces God to forgive your sins and to declare you righteous? God forgives
my sins and
declares me righteous, not because of any merit or worthiness in me, but because of His grace, for
Christ’s sake. Rom 3:21-24 & Eph 1:7,8
Justification by Grace. This first part in the full formula lays the foundation for understanding how you can find a
gracious God. What must you do to be saved? That justification is by Grace tells you what is God’s part and what
is your part. If you do not know this then you will not know how to worship, praise, serve and love God and as
God’s law reveals your fallen nature, it becomes clear that if you do not understand this point you will surely focus
more on yourself than on God. [Rom 10:2-4 says that those who did not understand the righteousness of God,
which comes through faith, sought to establish their own]
That Justification comes by Grace alone cuts at the root of human sinfulness and is rejected because it is God’s free
gift. You cannot achieve it or decide to receive it for yourself; you cannot earn it yourself; you cannot manufacture
it yourself; you cannot define the terms of the contract. Much like the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32) who thought he
would get his father to let him be one of his slaves, in order to save his own hide, and the workers in the vineyard
(Matt. 20:1-16) who thought that they deserved more wages because they had worked longer--the father said no to
his son’s plea and the vineyard owner gave out wages as he saw fit. The prodigal son’s relationship to his father
could not be manipulated and the promise of the vineyard owner was not open for re-negotiation. In the same way
God is sovereign and does as He chooses without consulting you first to see if you think it is fair or according to
your wishes (Rom 9:14). By Grace does not mean that God forces salvation upon you whether you like it or not.
By Grace means that God freely gives you what you could never “get” of yourself.
Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone......
• Where does God offer you the forgiveness of sins and declare you righteous?
God offers me
forgiveness of sins and declares me righteous in the Gospel. Rom 1:17
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s chosen means of introducing His Grace to His people.
And how can you receive it? Justification is by Grace, through Faith
What is this faith through which justification comes, where does it come from?
“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). The
word of God is a means of Grace, that is, the word of God itself creates faith within its hearer. You are not saved
by Faith per se, rather you are saved by Grace which comes to you freely through Faith. Faith is what grasps you
and links you to Christ. This bringing you to Christ is the principal work of the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:5-15; Gal.
3:2,3; Eph 2:8) and so faith is a work of the Holy Spirit in your life. It is not that you just decide to believe in the
Gospel, nor is it that God helps you along for a while and then steps back leaving you to make a choice or that you
have faith within you waiting for you to put to right use. Here your freedom to choose is limited by Sin; you cannot
(moreover, will not) decide to believe. Faith is a gift of God’s grace, brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit
working through the Living Word of God.
Let me pause here for a moment and talk about the verb to believe
. The Greek word is
, and it corresponds
to the Hebrew verbs batah
(to feel safe) and ‘aman
(to view as reliable, to trust). From these meanings one can see
that the verb to believe
is from the stative verb group and so expresses a psychological state, not an action. Faith is
not something one does. Faith is an attribute, attitude or posture of one’s heart and mind through which grace is
freely received, like the antenna on a television receives the signal which is everywhere present all around it. The
antenna is active but it does not perform any action. Neither is faith a one time affect, rather one’s faith in God is
to develop and increase day by day, but this happens as a result of, or in reaction to, His word and promises, (the
means of grace) and not as a function of one’s decision, effort or activity. It is God alone who does the work of
faith through which justification comes by grace (Eph 2).
• Why is it necessary that the Holy Spirit work this faith in you? According to the Scriptures I am by
nature spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God
; therefore I cannot by my own reason or strength
believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. 1Cor 2:14 & Eph 2:1-9
The doctrine of Original Sin3
is vital to rightly understanding why it is necessary that the Holy Spirit work this
faith in you. [Here I will summarize briefly and encourage you not to rest with such a short explanation, but look
into the matter more deeply.] Essentially, the doctrine of Original Sin says that the man and woman whom God
originally created and sustained in the Garden of Eden became entirely corrupted by Sin through the Serpent’s
deception of Adam and Eve (Gen 3). Every creature born in the likeness of Adam now inherits this corruption
(Rom 5:12) as well as the resulting condemnation, judgment, wrath of God (Rom 5:18). In their original state
Adam and Eve possessed gifts like a true knowledge of God that would comprehend God and reflect His image;
they also possessed a righteous fear of God, trust in God and love for God. Through the fall these gifts were lost so
that they became lacking or deficient. This deficiency is moral in nature; it is moral corruption or the disease of
Sin which infects human nature and brings about a vicious inclination toward a lack of true knowledge of God
leading to willful unbelief and blind ignorance of God as well as mistrust of God, lack of fear of God and hatred of
God. So then, in Original Sin there are these two elements: the lack of original righteousness and a willful
inclination toward evil. Not only have we lost the gifts originally given in creation so that we might perfectly
depend on God for our every need and truly reflect the image and likeness of God, but we also now possess a will
that is totally self-directed, completely bent-in on itself, defiantly independent. The rightly ordered relationship
with God is one in which the created is entirely dependent on the Creator. The Sin-infected human nature is bent
on independence and so resists complete dependence on God.
After the Fall, God is still the creator and sustainer of every human person, however, the corruption of sin
dwells within the nature, which is both physical and spiritual, that He now uses to create the human person.
Human nature itself is not Sin, rather human nature is deeply infected by Sin. Human nature is one thing; Sin is
another. Sin has so corrupted human nature that in matters concerning God, (who He is, what He does or how one
can know Him) human reason is totally blind and dumb. This point is confirmed to us by the Apostle John when
he says, “In Him [Jesus] was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the
darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4,5) So great is the darkness of the Sin infected nature that even when
illuminated by the light the human person does not, of him/herself, comprehend God, or His Truth, because, as far
as the knowledge of God is concerned, all human understanding is blindness. Wherefore John goes on to assert
that those who do come to receive Christ by faith are, “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will
of man, but of God (John 1:13).
It is in your fallen human nature only to reject God except that by the power of the Gospel He saves you
according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). If your
conscience is burdened about whether or not God has chosen or will choose to save you then have no fear! Jesus
has borne God’s wrath toward sinners in your place. Simply believe that His sacrifice on your behalf is sufficient,
trust only in Jesus, you are right with God!
The Obedience of Faith
Are you passive in this whole process? Yes, Grace gives Faith receives. So then, does the Scripture say you
are justified by grace through faith and that grace is a gift you cannot obtain, and that faith is a work of the Holy
Spirit such that you cannot believe in Jesus on your own? Yet at this point the question of Scriptural commands to
do good works enters the conversation as someone will say, and rightly so, that faith may be passive but it is not
inactive. After all James says that faith without works is dead. At the same time it is easy to conclude that if ones
faith is dead no amount of works will bring it to life! Here it is necessary to describe faith more clearly.
The faith through which you are justified consists of three distinguishable but not separable elements:
knowledge, assent and trust. Knowledge
- data, facts, details.
- believing that the knowledge you have is
true truth. Trust
- abandoning oneself to the consequences of belief. This means relying on, or resting securely in
what you believe. Again, this relying or resting securely is not something you do, rather it is the natural product
or characteristic of the faith which the gracious God, through His word, has created within you. This kind of faith
radically transforms the way in which you live and act in the world because through this faith you are made a new
creation in Christ (2Cor 5:17) [note that God is not after an “improved you”] and yet the old creation remains as
long as you live on this earth (2Cor 5:4, Rom 8:18-25). The old nature is against the new and the new is against
the old (Rom 7) as both exist simultaneously. It is in this way that you are, at the same time, both saint and sinner.
More will be said of this later.
When Paul talks about the faith that justifies apart from works he is not talking about a dead faith. Works
without faith are dead works - Faith without works is dead faith (James). Paul wrote to those in Rome who were
steeped in works oriented religion; James to Christians who had begun to abuse their liberty in the Gospel. In
either case the Faith that alone saves is a Faith that produces fruit. Mere assent to the knowledge does not produce
genuine fruit, but the knowledge which is held to be true and trusted alone for the forgiveness of sins and
justification in the presence of God produces fruit beyond measure according to the will of God.
When Paul says that you are justified by faith apart from works he is saying that human works in no way serve
as a foundation for justification nor do they serve as a means of sanctification. At this point a distinction between
justification and sanctification must be made. A distinction not a separation; you cannot have one without the
other; whomever God justifies He also sanctifies, makes holy.
Sanctification, in Scripture, is directly linked to justification while it is expressed both in the sense of being
complete (1Cor 1:2, 30, Heb10:10) and in the sense of the ongoing inward transformation of the individual (2 Cor
7:1; Rom 6:22). The event of justification occurs outside of you as you are declared righteous and sanctification is
Christ dwelling within you, having transformed and transforming you, having made and making you a new
creation; both justification and sanctification are entirely the work of God. As to your part in the process I have
heard it said that sanctification is the art of getting used to justification.
Here is a crucial question: Is the Christian life yours to live or is it Christ living in you? To say that it is
somehow both is to miss the point. Confusion here occurs, in part, when justification is separated from
sanctification. Sanctification is often understood as that which pertains to living the “Christian life” as though
God justifies and then it is up to the individual to do the work of sanctification. This view is not so much
concerned with what Christ has accomplished, and is accomplishing, on your behalf as it is concerned with what
Christ wants you to do or what Christ has done so that you can do certain “Christian” things. This as though
Christ were merely an example to follow and the Bible, reduced to a recipe book, is primarily used to teach certain
principles or procedures you should follow or certain attitudes, behaviors and moral values you should adopt and
practice. Sanctification is, in truth, not about you living “your Christian life” rather it is about Christ initiating,
nurturing and completing the Christian life in you.
Does this mean that obedience to Christ is a non-issue if He is active and you are passive? Does this mean that
how you live your life is of no matter? Or should I say it like Paul does in verse 1 of Romans 6, “What shall we say
then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” Or in 6:15, “What then? Shall we sin because we are
not under law but under grace?” My response, like Paul’s is “May it never be.” Understand that it is crucial for
you to ask such questions because it is the surest indication that you are beginning to understand what it means to
be justified by Grace alone through Faith alone on account of Christ alone.
Romans 7, 1 Cor.15:35-58 and 2 Cor 4 & 5 are especially helpful in understanding the relationship between
the new nature and the old. In 2 Cor. 4:16 Paul says, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is
decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day”, and in 1 Cor.15:47 “The first man is from the earth,
earthly; the second man is from heaven.” It is in this place of tension that one must realize the right source and
purpose of good works and so possess a living faith. It is in this great mystery that you can understand how a
Christian is in the world and yet not of the world. If you would discover how it is that you can find a gracious God,
or rather how He has found you, you will do well to understand that, first of all, a Christian lives in the presence of
God a free person subject to no one nor any law of works as God, having freely justified by His graciousness, is
Himself transforming the inner man into the image of His Son (Col 3:9,10; Rom 8:29). Secondly, the Christian
also lives in the presence of man, subject to death like every other living thing, and for the sake of Him who has
delivered him from death is a dutiful servant, subject to all people, laws, and works4
(Rom chs. 12-15). Living
Faith trusts God not only for salvation but also for the fruit of good works; Living Faith produces its own good
works and believers simply offer these works to God as a thank offering for His gracious mercy and love.
It is in the temporal world that the Christian must perform works necessary to serve others and bring his/her
decaying outer man into conformity with the eternal inner man, not for the sake of being right with God, but for
the Glory of God and for the sake of those whom God has called him/her to serve (1Cor.9:19). So then, in the
presence of God the Christian lives by faith in the Son of God and in the presence of man the Christian lives by
love for the world that God so loved that He sent His only begotten Son to die for it so that whomsoever should
believe in Him will not die but have everlasting life.
Yes, Faith does cause a person to think and act in certain ways. A faith without works is no faith at all; the
mistake is made when rather than examining ourselves to see whether we are in the Faith, we use the law to
motivate, to produce (with Jesus’ or the Holy Spirit’s help of course) “works” which we suppose validate our faith
and assure us of salvation. The Law only kills; only the Gospel makes alive and the Gospel is only concerned with
what God has accomplished in Christ for you
. The question to ask is, “Do you believe that God has saved you
while you were still His enemy (Rom 5:10), dead in your sin (Eph 2:1-7), that Christ died for you while you were
yet a helpless sinner (Rom 5:6-9)? If so, then is it not so that upon realizing the great magnitude of God’s
graciousness toward you, you will cling to Him and gladly obey Him in all things?
Faith is not an easier softer way; Faith is the narrow way that few will find. In this you are left to completely
despair of yourself and look to the one Person in whom you must solely rely. Hence the final part of the full
Justification by Grace alone
through Faith alone
on account of Christ alone
What does it mean to be justified on account of Christ?
Jesus Christ lived the life that you could never live. His relationship with the Father is rightly ordered. All of
the obligations and responsibilities of the relationship were, have been, are, and always will be fulfilled. The
consequence for Sin, which is death, He Himself suffered upon the cross in your place. This is why there is
nothing left for you to “do” in order to be saved; Jesus has accomplished salvation for you. “He made Him who
knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Cor. 5:21). His
word calls you to believe this Truth, to rest securely in Him. What does the Scripture say? “He was delivered over
to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). That is what it means to be justified
on account of Christ. In His account the balance reads “sins of the whole world fully atoned--all obligations and
responsibilities fulfilled.” Jesus, His life, death and resurrection are the sole basis for your justification. God sees
believers through Christ not as if
their relationship with him always was, is and always will be perfectly, rightly
ordered, rather God sees believers, for Christ’s sake, in perfect communion with Him. This is not a conditional “if-
-then” equation, this is an unconditional “because--therefore” equation. Because Jesus died, therefore your sins are
forgiven; because Jesus rose again, therefore you are justified. You can do nothing to either add to or take away
from the objective reality of Justification. You can keep trying, apart from Faith
, to “get right” with God,
thus making salvation ultimately hinge on your cooperation with God expressed through your personal decision,
effort or activity (which is to refuse His free gift, assert your independence and thereby remain separated from
God). Christ did not come to help you save you; Christ came to seek you out, call you by His Gospel and to redeem
you by Grace through Faith in Him.
In the parables given previously the focus was not primarily on the prodigal son but on the father who loved
and graciously received his son, nor was the focus on the laborers in the vineyard but on the vineyard owner who
defined the terms of the contract and fulfilled his promise to pay his laborers as he saw fit. And so, the doctrine of
justification gives all glory to God who is our gracious Father and generous Vineyard Owner. The doctrine of
justification calls you to rely only on the God who justifies by His own sovereign grace, through faith on account of
Within the fence of this doctrine of justification you are free to live out the consequences of Faith, striving to
bring the outer man into compliance, allowing God’s law to expose your sin, rejoicing in Christ’s victory over sin,
knowing His victory is your own. You are free to be obedient to Christ because the doctrine of justification
reminds you that the basis for your right standing with God is not in your decision to follow Him or commit your
life to Him, nor is it in your worthiness or any accumulation of good works, but only Jesus Christ. Now you are
free to worship the God who has made you His own by His own sovereign choice assured to you by His promised
forgiveness and salvation in Christ. Today you are free to live a life of praise for the One who died for you.
It is in the freedom of Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone on account of Christ alone that you will
find a Gracious God. Go into the world and proclaim this freedom, live in this freedom, it was for this freedom
that Christ set you free.
Written by Kevin W. Fenster
A short explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia, 1943 revised 1965)
Alister E. McGrath, Justification by Faith
, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 24,25
For further study of biblical texts and critique of my summary: Theodore G. Tappert (Ed),
The Book of
Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church
, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959) 29,
100-107, 302-303, 466-469, 508-519; also see Saint Augustine: On Original Sin
in Vol. 1 of Whitney J.
Oates (Ed), The Basic Writings of Saint Augustine
, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992) 620-654.
Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian,
in Timothy F. Lull (Ed.)
Martin Luther’s Basic Theological
, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 610,611.