Is justification by faith suffering from a marketing problem? There is nothing wrong with the doctrine itself—it is the most wonderful biblical truth known by Christians—but is its popularity waning? My impressions are subjective, but I rarely hear it explained or applied by believers (including myself) these days. I worry that it’s slipping out of everyday Christian experience and evangelism. In this article, I want to encourage us to consider why the doctrine should be at the front and centre of our thinking.

Still Relevant for Christians

I realise that this might be a hard sell. Justification sounds complicated—the domain of specialists rather than ordinary believers. And I know that talking about justification means dwelling on our own sin, or more precisely, our own unrighteousness—something we would prefer not to do. Non-Christians don’t want to hear about that and neither do many Christians. We would like to imagine that we are on friendly terms with God, based on a general sense of his kindness and our own personal goodness.

Sidelining justification by faith means missing out on the main source of joy in our walk with God.

But sidelining justification by faith means missing out on the main source of joy in our walk with God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spent an entire chapter on this in his 1965 classic Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures. Some Christians are “miserable Christians” because

… they have not understood the way of salvation, and for that reason all their beliefs and efforts have been more or less useless. They often concentrate on the question of sanctification, but it does not help them because they have not understood justification.[1]

His point was that Christian apathy and joylessness is often caused by a failure to understand and believe that we are justified by faith.

Still Relevant for Non-Believers

The non-Christian world also desperately needs to hear the message of justification by faith. Even if it doesn’t know about justification, our culture is very familiar with the opposite categories guilt and condemnation. People still fear condemnation—but not condemnation by God; they fear being shamed and cancelled by society. What they long for, rather than being right with God, is to be liked, followed and celebrated.

A recent SMH article about horse racing and Generation Z described how a popular influencer avoided the track out of a fear of being cancelled. Melissa Spring writes:

At a fashion launch in Melbourne last week, one influencer in her 20s with 600,000 Instagram followers was overheard saying she’s not going to the races, paid or unpaid, more out of fear of backlash rather than her personal beliefs. ‘I don’t want to be cancelled,’ she said.

Others agreed to participate in a corporate tent but ensured their contracts forbade them being photographed, “because they won’t want the public association with something that’s controversial.”

Without God, people find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly moralistic society where a righteous status is easily lost and almost impossible to regain.

This is not the real problem, of course, but it points to it. Such fears of condemnation are like warning lights on a dashboard: the problem is not with the dashboard but with the engine. The real issue for the people around us is not being cancelled by the culture but being condemned by God.

People need to hear the good news that we can be righteous before God. Knowing that God does not condemn anyone who trusts in Jesus can free people from being afraid of human condemnation or cancellation. For “who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies” (Rom 8:33).

What is it?

What is justification by faith? It is the doctrine that God declares us righteous, even though we are sinful and deserve condemnation.[2] It is a righteous status before God that we cannot obtain by our own works (or by any combination of faith and good works). It comes by the sacrificial death and resurrection of the only righteous person, Jesus Christ, the son of God. It is received by faith (meaning trust or belief) in Jesus and his work. And it is applied to us through the Holy Spirit as he unites us to Christ.

A Biblical Doctrine

This doctrine is no fancy footwork; it is taught clearly in the Bible:[3]

  • We are sinful and condemned: “… just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people … just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners…” (Rom 5:18-19).
  • Righteousness is not gained by our own works: “… by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:16). Other passages rule out “works” generally, “righteous things” or “human desire or effort” as means by which we might be justified (Eph 2:9, Tit 3:5, Rom 9:16).
  • Jesus Christ, the Son of God is “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) who is without sin (Heb 4:15) and fully obedient to God (Rom 5:19).
  • We are justified by the death of Jesus: “… we have now been justified by his blood …” (Rom 5:9). His death is described as a sacrifice of atonement (Rom 3:25; c.f. 1 John 2:2; 4:10) or a sin offering (Rom 8:3). He was also “raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).
  • The Holy Spirit unites us to Christ: “You, however are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Rom 8:9). We receive the Spirit by faith (Gal 3:14).
  • We receive righteousness by faith in Christ: “…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9). In other words, “(Christ) has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).[4]

Scripture insists that we have been made right with God through the death and resurrection of Christ and we receive this blessing by faith.

Spectacular News

Justification by faith is spectacularly good news. Before God we are no longer guilty sinners; we are righteous worshippers. Being justified means our sins are forgiven and we have the certain hope of eternal life. Being justified means we are reconciled to God and adopted into his family. We are sanctified (made holy) and cleansed of sin. We have been freed from the oppressive burden of law keeping and can live our lives as God intended—led by the Spirit towards love. Any loss we suffer by becoming Christians can be written off as worthless compared to the surpassing value of gaining Christ. Lloyd-Jones wrote, “There is no happiness finally, there is no peace, there is no joy except we be right with God”.[5]

Any loss we suffer by becoming Christians can be written off as worthless compared to the surpassing value of gaining Christ.

Is this a doctrine you believe and treasure? Do you know for yourself the joy of being right with God by faith in Christ alone? And if so, is this truth something you regularly bring to your Christian conversation, preaching and teaching? Justification by faith alone is what the children, youth and adults of our churches and ministries need to hear.

We must not leave people confused about the role of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and faith in how they might become right with God. And we must not leave people with any hint that their spiritual activities or good works have a part in gaining their righteousness before him. This is good news for our world, for without it everyone must fear not only being cancelled but also the eternal wrath of God.

Justification by faith is not just for textbooks. It belongs not just to the academics but to every Christian. And so the onus is on all of us to work out how we can grow in our knowledge of the doctrine and incorporate it more deeply and thoroughly in our everyday life and ministries. We need to work out how we can clearly proclaim and explain this wonderful news to the people around us. May God be praised, for we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures. Marshall Pickering 1998 (original 1965). Pg 25

[2] It is helpful to know that in the original language of the New Testament, the word “justify” is the verbal form of the noun “righteousness”. If “righteousify” was a word it would fit well.

[3] This bullet list is necessarily brief. A more expansive presentation of justification by faith can be found in chapters in standard theology textbooks (yes, the irony) but also J. I. Packer’s article in the New Bible Dictionary. See also Peter Jensen’s excellent talk for the Gospel Coalition Australia Victoria Conference in 2017: https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/justification-by-faith-a-talk-by-peter-jensen-via-tgca-victoria/

[4] Christ’s righteousness becoming ours is known as the doctrine of imputation.

[5] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, pg 25