Jesus and the Doctrine of Justification
by John MacArthur
All Rights Reserved
No doctrine is more important to evangelical theology than the doctrine of justification by faith alone—the Reformation principle of sola fide. Martin Luther called it the article that determines whether the church is standing or falling.
History provides plenty of objective evidence to affirm Luther’s assessment. Churches and denominations that hold firmly to sola fide remain evangelical. Those willing to yield at this point inevitably capitulate to liberalism, revert to sacerdotalism, or embrace even worse forms of apostasy. Historic evangelicalism has therefore always treated justification by faith as a central biblical distinctive—if not the single most important doctrine to get right. It would not be far from the truth to define evangelicals as those who believe in justification by faith alone.
Scripture itself makes sola fide the only alternative to a damning system of works-righteousness: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5, emphasis added). Israel’s apostasy was rooted in their abandonment of justification by faith alone: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).
In other words, those who trust Jesus Christ for justification by faith alone receive a perfect righteousness that is reckoned to them. Those who attempt to establish their own righteousness or mix faith with works only receive the terrible wage that is due all who fall short of perfection. So the individual as well as the church stands or falls with the principle of sola fide.
Biblical justification must be earnestly defended on two fronts. Many today misuse the doctrine to support the view that obedience to God’s moral law is optional. This teaching attempts to reduce the whole of God’s saving work to the declarative act of justification. It downplays the spiritual rebirth of regeneration (2 Cor. 5:17); it discounts the moral effects of the believer’s new heart (Ezek. 36:26-27); and it makes sanctification hinge on the believer’s own efforts. It tends to treat the forensic element of justification—God’s act of declaring the believing sinner righteous—as if this were the only essential aspect of salvation. The inevitable effect of this approach is to turn the grace of God into licentiousness (Jude 4). Such a view is called antinomianism.
On the other hand, there are many who make justification dependent on a mixture of faith and works. Whereas antinomianism radically isolates justification from sanctification, this error blends the two aspects of God’s saving work. The effect is to make justification a process grounded in the believer’s own flawed righteousness—rather than a declarative act of God grounded in Christ’s perfect righteousness. As soon as justification is fused with sanctification, works of righteousness become an essential part of the process. Faith is thus diluted with works. Sola fide is abandoned. This was the error of the Galatian legalists (cf. Gal. 2:16). Paul called it “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6, 9). The same error is found in virtually every false cult. It is also the whole basis of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification.
Evangelicalism is currently being assaulted with both errors. The “lordship salvation” controversy reveals the potency of modern antinomianism.1 Meanwhile on the other front, a push is underway for ecumenical union with Roman Catholicism. This would require evangelicals to soften their stance on sola fide and grant the stamp of legitimacy to a Galatian-style doctrine of justification that mingles faith and works. These trends are especially alarming because they emanate from within the evangelical movement itself.
And outside evangelicalism, justification by faith alone is being vigorously attacked. A new generation of Roman Catholic apologists have taken up arms against sola fide. According to them, Scripture does not teach the doctrine—it is an invention of Luther and the Reformers.
I recently listened to a taped presentation by a Catholic priest who was making these claims. He suggested that Jesus virtually ignored the doctrine of justification in His own teaching and evangelism. This man, who frequently debates Protestant theologians, said he has challenged them all to demonstrate where Jesus taught that anyone could be justified by faith alone. So far, he said, he has not found anyone willing to take him up on his dare.
Unfortunately, today’s evangelicals are poorly equipped to meet such a challenge. Many see theology as less important than the great moral issues of our day, such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and similar concerns. Thrown together with Roman Catholics in the political arena, many moral activists view it as counterproductive to debate theology. They prefer to let the doctrinal differences between Rome and the Reformers fade into obscurity. At the very least they are willing to treat all doctrinal differences as secondary matters. This mindset is behind the document titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which calls evangelicals to embrace all Catholics as true brothers and sisters in Christ. 2
Meanwhile, ignorance and theological naiveté have left many evangelicals unable to defend what Scripture teaches. Ours is an age of pragmatism, obsessed with what works and less concerned with what is true. Too few are able or willing to defend evangelical truths against contradictory views. It is easier—and it seems so much more polite—simply not to argue. Therefore attacks on crucial evangelical doctrines often go unanswered. The next generation will reap the poisonous fruit of this trend.
If doctrine as a whole has been ignored in our day, the doctrine of justification has suffered a particular neglect. Written works on justification are noticeably missing from the corpus of recent evangelical literature. In his introduction to the 1961 reprint of James Buchanan’s landmark work on justification, J. I. Packer made note of this:
It is a fact of ominous significance that Buchanan’s classic volume, now a century old, is the most recent full-scale study of justification by faith that English-speaking Protestantism (to look no further) has produced. If we may judge by the size of its literary output, there has never been an age of such feverish theological activity as the past hundred years; yet amid all its multifarious theological concerns it did not produce a single book of any size on the doctrine of justification. If all we knew of the church during the past century was that it had neglected the subject of justification in this way, we should already be in a position to conclude that this has been a century of religious apostasy and decline. 3
No doctrine is more important to defend than the biblical teaching that believers are justified by faith alone. Sola fide is one truth that we must keep clearly in sight if we are to steer a safe course between the twin evils of antinomianism on one side and works-righteousness on the other. The apostle Paul counted it so important that he issued a solemn curse of eternal damnation against anyone who would corrupt the gospel at this point (Gal. 1:9). No wonder so many in the Reformation gave their lives in defense of this doctrine.
In fact, justification was the doctrine that sparked the Reformation. Catholic theology had neglected the subject for centuries. Rome was unprepared to answer the early Reformers’ doctrinal challenge. So the Church’s initial response was to deflect the debate to the issue of moral and ecclesiastical reforms. Martin Luther was frustrated by Rome’s unwillingness to address doctrine—especially justification by faith. He even stated that he would gladly yield to the pope on ecclesiastical matters if the pope would embrace the true gospel.4 Luther understood that all the moral and ecclesiastical offenses tolerated by the Church were ultimately a result of the eclipse of justification. The doctrine of justification by faith alone would have automatically ended the sale of indulgences and other abuses of ecclesiastical power.
So when the Reformers’ preaching about justification by faith began to awaken the masses to the truth of Scripture, it was inevitable that the Roman Catholic Church would respond.
The Gospel According to Rome
The Church finally set forth its views on justification in the mid-sixteenth century at the Council of Trent. Trent was Rome’s answer to the Reformation, and much of the Council’s work was specifically designed to set Catholic doctrine in stark contrast to Protestant ideas. Nowhere is the divergence between Rome and the Reformers more pronounced than in the Council’s handling of justification.
The Canons and Decrees of Trent are not merely the archaic opinion of some medieval Bishops. They represent the official position of the Church to this day. All subsequent Catholic councils have uniformly reaffirmed Trent’s pronouncements. In fact, the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s declared these doctrines “irreformable.”5 All faithful Catholics are commanded to receive them as infallible truth. Therefore, to understand Roman Catholic doctrine on justification, we must go back to the Council of Trent.
Trent did not overtly deny that believers are saved by divine grace. In fact, the Council specifically stated that “God justifies sinners by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”6 That, of course, is an echo of Romans 3:24. But Scripture goes a step further than Trent was willing to go. Romans 11:6 says, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (emphasis added). Trent took a position that made works an essential part of justification. In doing so, they were left with a grace that is “no longer grace.” So although Trent started with an affirmation of divine grace, the doctrine of justification they described is actually “a different gospel” that corrupts the grace of God.
a process dependent on the believer, not a judicial act of God
The Council saw justification as a process whereby the sinner is actually made righteous. In other words, Trent said justification entails the whole process of sanctification. According to the Council, justification is “not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts by which an unrighteous man becomes righteous.” 7
Moreover, according to the Council, justification is a lifelong process.8 In fact, the process extends beyond this life and into the next. Purgatory is necessary to blot out the full debt of eternal punishment:
If anyone says that the guilt is remitted to every penitent sinner after the grace of justification has been received, and that the debt of eternal punishment is so blotted out that there remains no debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened—let him be anathema. 9
There is no guarantee that anyone will persevere in the process,10 and some may fall away and be lost forever. But “those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of justification may be again justified. . . through the sacrament of penance.” 11
In other words, good works are necessary to preserve justification, and when believers sin, they must regain their justification through a religious ritual. This is an unmistakable denial of sola fide.
faith plus works, not faith alone
While giving lip service to the importance of faith in justification, Trent nevertheless declared that the instrumental cause of justification (the means by which it is obtained) is not faith, but “the sacrament of baptism.” 12
And in a similar vein, the Council ruled, “If anyone says that the righteousness received is not preserved and also not increased before God by good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of its increase, let him be anathema.”13 In other words, works are necessary to obtain, to preserve, and to increase justification. If works are not added to faith, justification stops short of its goal.
Even grace is conferred through works in the Roman Catholic system:
If anyone says that by the said sacraments . . . grace is not conferred through the work worked but [says] that faith alone in the divine promises is sufficient for the obtaining of grace, let him be anathema. 14
The Council further issued an explicit repudiation of sola fide: “If anyone says that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema.” 15 In other words, Trent decreed that anyone who claims to be justified on the basis of faith alone apart from works is condemned to eternal damnation.
grace infused, not righteousness imputed
As noted earlier, when justification is mingled with sanctification, the grounds for justification becomes the sinner’s own imperfect righteousness rather than the perfect righteousness of Christ. Trent explicitly acknowledged this:
If anyone says that men are justified either by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ alone, or by the remission of sins alone, to the exclusion of the grace and love that is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit and is inherent in them; or even that the grace by which we are justified is only the favor of God—let him be anathema. 16
Here the Council was expressly contradicting the Reformation teaching that Christ’s perfect righteousness, imputed to the sinner’s account, is the ground on which we stand acceptable before God. Instead, the Council stated that grace is infused into the believer’s heart, resulting in a righteousness that is inherent (the believer’s own righteousness). That inherent righteousness—which must be perfected by sanctification and purgatory—provides the grounds for acceptance before God.
a different gospel, not the biblical message
Scripture teaches no such thing. In fact, the Catholic doctrine of justification is precisely what Paul condemned as “a different gospel.” According to the Bible, God “reckons righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:4-6). Paul counted all other things as refuse and dung for the sake of a right doctrine of justification: “In order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:8-9, emphasis added). That is a plain repudiation of the very doctrine taught by the Council of Trent!
Scripture also teaches that justification is a declarative act of God, not a process. Jesus promised immediate salvation to believers: “He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (Jn. 5:24). That verse clearly states that on the basis of faith alone, sinners pass out of death and into eternal life. Sanctification is a result, not a prerequisite; and purgatory is never even mentioned in Scripture. In fact, whenever the Bible speaks of believers’ justification, it always speaks of a past-tense event that occurs at the moment of faith: “Thereforehaving been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1, emphasis added). “Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (v. 9, emphasis added). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1, emphasis added). Our justification is an accomplished fact, not an unfinished project.
Scripture also makes clear that justification is by faith alone, not by faith plus works: “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9, emphasis added).
Justification by faith alone is and always has been the only way of salvation:
For what does the [Old Testament] Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:3-6, emphasis added).
What must we do to be saved? Scripture answers that question in the clearest possible terms: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). Works have no part in our justification. The only thing that can make any sinner acceptable to God is the imputed merit of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel According to Jesus
Let’s return to the Roman Catholic priest’s challenge. Certainly if justification by faith alone is so crucial a doctrine, we would expect to find it clearly taught by our Lord. Indeed, that is precisely what we discover.
Although Christ made no formal explication of the doctrine of justification (such as Paul did in his epistle to the Romans), justification by faith underlay and permeated all His gospel preaching. While Jesus never gave a discourse on the subject, it is easy to demonstrate from Jesus’ evangelistic ministry that He taughtsola fide.
For example, it was Jesus Himself who stated, “he who hears My word, and believes . . . has passed out of death into life” (Jn. 5:24)—without undergoing any sacrament or ritual, and without any waiting period or purgatory. The thief on the cross is the classic example. On the most meager evidence of his faith, Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). No sacrament or work was required for him to procure salvation.
Furthermore, the many healings Jesus accomplished were physical evidence of His power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:5-6). When He healed, He frequently said, “Your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22; Mk. 5:34; 10:52; Lk. 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). All those healings were object lessons on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
But the one occasion where Jesus actually declared someone “justified” provides the best insight into the doctrine as He taught it:
He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14, emphasis added).
That parable surely shocked Jesus’ listeners! They “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (v. 9)—the very definition of self-righteousness. Their theological heroes were the Pharisees, who held to the most rigid legalistic standards. They fasted, made a great show of praying and giving alms, and even went further in applying the ceremonial laws than Moses had actually prescribed. “As to the righteousness which is in the Law,” they considered themselves “blameless” (cf. Phil. 3:5-6).
Yet Jesus had stunned multitudes by saying, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20)—followed by, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). Clearly, He set a standard that was humanly impossible, for no one could surpass the rigorous living of the scribes and Pharisees.
Now He further astounds His listeners with a parable that seems to place a detestable tax-gatherer in a better position spiritually than a praying Pharisee.
Jesus’ point is clear. He was teaching that justification is by faith alone. All the theology of justification is there. But without delving into abstract theology, Jesus clearly painted the picture for us with a parable.
a judicial act of God
This tax-gatherer’s justification was an instantaneous reality. There was no process, no time lapse, no fear of purgatory. He “went down to his house justified” (v. 14)—not because of anything he had done, but because of what had been done on his behalf.
Notice that the tax-collector understood his own helplessness. He owed an impossible debt he knew he could not pay. All he could do was repent and plead for mercy. Contrast his prayer with that of the arrogant Pharisee. He did not recite what he had done. He knew that even his best works were sin. He did not offer to do anything for God. He simply pleaded for divine mercy. He was looking for God to do for him what he could not do for himself. That is the very nature of the penitence Jesus called for.
by faith alone
Furthermore, this man went away justified without performing any works of penance, without doing any sacrament or ritual, without any meritorious works whatsoever. His justification was complete without any of those things, because it was solely on the basis of faith. Everything necessary to atone for his sin and provide forgiveness had already been done on his behalf. He was justified by faith on the spot.
Again, he makes a stark contrast with the smug Pharisee, who was so certain that all his fasting and tithing and other works made him acceptable to God. But while the working Pharisee remained unjustified, the believing tax-gatherer received full justification by faith alone.
an imputed righteousness
Remember Jesus’ statement from the Sermon on the Mount, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20)? Yet now He states that this tax-gatherer—the most wicked of men—was justified! How did such a sinner obtain a righteousness that exceeded that of the Pharisee? If the standard is divine perfection (v. 48), how could a traitorous tax-collector ever become just in God’s eyes?
The only possible answer is that he received a righteousness that was not his own (cf. Phil. 3:9). Righteousness was imputed to him by faith (Rom. 4:9-11).
Whose righteousness was reckoned to him? It could only be the perfect righteousness of a flawless Substitute, who in turn must bear the tax-gatherer’s sins and suffer the penalty of God’s wrath in his place. And the gospel tells us that is precisely what Jesus did.
The tax-gatherer was justified. God declared him righteous, imputing to him the full and perfect righteousness of Christ, forgiving him of all unrighteousness, and delivering him from all condemnation. Forever thereafter he stood before God on the ground of a perfect righteousness that had been reckoned to his account.
That is what justification means. It is the only true gospel. All other points of theology emanate from it. As Packer wrote, “The doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas: it bears a world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of saving grace.” The difference between Rome and the Reformers is not theological hair-splitting. A right understanding of justification by faith is the very foundation of the gospel. You cannot go wrong on this point without corrupting every other doctrine as well. And that is why every “different gospel” is under the eternal curse of God.
You cannot say that Luther invented the idea of justification by faith alone. Long before Luther it was taught by Augustine and Paul and Jesus and Moses. Even back in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve realized soon after their sin that the fig leaves with which they tried to cover their shame were woefully inadequate. The gospel is given in Genesis 3:21 when Moses tells us that God clothed them. They needed something they couldn’t provide for themselves; and God giving man what man needs to stand in His favorable presence is the essence of the gospel. Luther merely restated what true Christians have understood for centuries, that justification is by faith alone.
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- I have confronted this error in two separate books: The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988, 1994); Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas: Word, 1993).
- I addressed this document at length in Reckless Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 119-53.
- James I. Packer in James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961 reprint of 1867 original), 2.
- Martin Luther, Table Talk, in Helmut T. Lehman, ed., Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), Theodore G. Tappert, trans., 54:185.
- Lumen Gentium, 25, in Walter M. Abbot, S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: America Press, 1966).
- Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, sess. 6, chap. 6.
7.Trent, sess. 6, chap. 7 (emphasis added).
- Trent, sess. 6, chap. 10.
- Trent, sess. 6, canon 30.
- Trent, sess. 6, chap. 13.
- Trent, sess. 6, chap. 14
- Trent, sess. 6, chap. 7.
- Trent, sess. 6, canon 24.
- Trent, sess. 7, canon 8 (emphasis added).
- Trent, sess. 6, canon 9 (emphasis added).
- Trent, sess. 6, canon 11.