In every generation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone comes under attack. As the heart of the gospel, the doctrine of justification is most fundamental to the definition of salvation and any adequate understanding of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In our current cultural milieu where orthodox belief is despised and innovation is praised, many have ignored, maligned, or sought to redefine the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Unfortunately, there are even those within more conservative theological domains whose definition of justification by faith falls short of the biblical and reformed doctrine of justification, particularly as defined in the Westminster Standards. To combat these harmful perversions, we here seek to define a clear, confessional argument that might serve the church as a bulwark to “strengthen what remains.”
We affirm that justification is by faith in Christ’s “proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified.” (WLC, 71). As a reformed, presbyterian, and confessional body we affirm the orthodox doctrine of justification set forth in the Word of God and defined in the Westminster Standards. The Word of God teaches that this satisfaction of God’s righteousness is imputed to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore that it requires “nothing of them for their justification but faith which also is his gift, their justification [being to them] of free grace” (WLC, 71). “Faith, thus resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.” (WCF, 11:2) Furthermore, we affirm that, “Christ did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf.” (WCF, 11:3) Therefore, we affirm that the material cause in justification is the righteousness of Christ’s work on our behalf, and the means by which this righteousness is applied to the believer is faith alone.
We deny that a man’s works, in any way, contribute to his justification, whether before or after believing on Christ in faith. We deny that we are justified by “sanctifying fruit” in addition to faith in the perfection of Christ’s work. Furthermore, we deny that doing such works from a “justified position” qualifies those works to become somehow instrumental in obtaining one’s “final salvation”.
We affirm that justification is a singular act of God’s grace, whereby sinners are justified in their receiving faith as a “gift of God” when the “Holy Spirit, in due time, actually applies Christ unto them.” (WCF 11:2, 11:4). This justification, being predestined from all eternity and applied in due time is whole and entire upon application. Furthermore, we affirm that justification is forensic in application, declaring a sinner righteous in the sight of God, and therefore finally, irrevocably, and eternally saved from the condemnation of sin not progressively but instantaneously. We maintain that our justification rests from the beginning to end in the sovereign will of Christ who, “predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies.” We also maintain that religious works have no place in the justification of an individual other than that of a necessary consequence. In no way do our works contribute to that justification, for this would be to put our works in the place of the work of Jesus Christ, who is, alone, our perfect and entire righteousness.
We deny that our deliverance requires the believer’s attainment of two statuses: namely initial justification and final salvation. While we still await the future enactment of our salvation, when the wrath of God against the nations is revealed and his children are brought into the kingdom fully, the ground of that future salvation is entirely present to the individual in the work of the Spirit at the moment of justification. Furthermore, as God himself calls those whom he predestines, justifies those whom he calls, and glorifies those whom he justifies, we deny that any who are predestined, called, or justified may fail to partake of glorification in the end. Thus we deny that our salvation from the final judgment is established or obtained through the works which proceed from that justification.
We affirm that, without holiness, none shall see God. Indeed, we insist that any who do not perform those works which must necessarily proceed from justification should have no presumption of enjoying the blessed presence of God in eternity, nor should they presume that they may avoid the pains of hell by such a dead faith. Despite the necessity of good works as a confirmation of the presence of saving faith, we maintain that the distinction between sanctification and justification remains critical for the maintenance of a proper view of salvation. As the confession states, “Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection” (WLC, 77). Works are necessary in the life of the believer, but are so as a confirmation, not an instrumental means of obtaining the promised end of salvation.
We deny that salvation, while inclusive of justification, sanctification, and glorification, is obtained by or through our performance of good works. We reject the false teaching that justification merely places us in right standing with God, but fails to deliver that promise of final glorification, that being attained by works done in love and obedience (sanctification). The succeeding stages of salvation (sanctification, glorification) proceed from justification, and when saving faith is truly present, will always and necessarily proceed from that justification. Arguments or appeals which rely upon an intolerable division in the golden chain of salvation, suggesting that justification and sanctification may somehow be enacted separately, or that our final glorification rests upon the works we do in our sanctification, abuse the doctrine of justification by faith alone so vital and necessary to the church.
We affirm that, “although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (WCF, 13:3) Thus, although believers may be deeply embattled in continual and bitter struggles with sin, and with the apostle Paul, bemoan their weaknesses and failures, their lives will necessarily evidence a progressive growth in holiness, even though such transformation will always be incomplete in this life.
We deny that as a consequence of the biblical doctrine of justification the truly regenerate Christians may sin with abandon, neglecting holiness, and pursue the lusts of the flesh. Accordingly, we deny that individuals given to such love of sin and persistent refusal of repentance were ever truly justified. While they may have, for a time, belonged to the visible church through a proper confession of faith, lacking the true substance of such a confession, they went out from the church, not truly belonging to Christ’s body.