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Barrett's Justification Book

The Theology of Justification By Faith: The Theological Case for Sola Fide

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, has edited a new book with Crossway titled, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. Many factors contributed to the Protestant Reformation, but one of the most significant was the debate over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, Martin Luther argued that justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. This comprehensive volume of 26 essays from a host of scholars explores the doctrine of justification from the lenses of history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology.

Today we are highlighting Mark Thompson’s chapter “The Theology of Justification By Faith.” Here is an excerpt to get you started:

The deep ground of the doctrine of justification only by faith is the person, character, and purpose of the triune God, and its focus is the death of Jesus Christ for sinners. In the body of Christian teaching, this doctrine has a special place, guarding and securing the priority of grace and the entire sufficiency of the atonement effected by Christ. In shorthand, justification is only by faith because salvation is only by Christ, and salvation only by Christ is the outworking of God’s eternal gracious purpose anchored in the immeasurable depth of his triune life. That is why Martin Luther spoke of this doctrine as the article by which the church stands or falls.[1] If the Christian confession fails at this point, it compromises our utter dependence on Christ and the sheer gratuity of grace, and as a result, the Christian life, corporately as well as individually, begins to unravel. Ultimately, the doctrine of God begins to be redrawn to accommodate notions of human merit and divine obligation. Luther’s fierce determination to concede nothing when it comes to this doctrine finds its true explanation here rather than in his personal psychology or polemical context: he understood just what was at stake.[2]

The rich tapestry that makes up this doctrine, into which is woven the person, character, and purpose of God, the profundity of human sin and its impact on every human faculty, and the glorious sufficiency of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice find concentrated expression in the words of the apostle Paul, in the midst of what Leon Morris once described as “the most important single paragraph ever written”:[3]

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:22–26)

These critical sentences occur within the integrated argument of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which he expounds the gospel of God (1:1), which is first and foremost the gospel concerning his Son (1:3), and as a consequence, the power of God for salvation (1:16). Taking that movement seriously is at least part of the antidote to an anthropocentric construal of salvation, which theologians such as John Webster have warned against.[4] The proper starting point is God, not the human predicament. A clear focus on the person and work of Christ rather than the instrument of faith also helps us avoid distorting our account of the doctrine. Just as critical is the distinction between the justifying act of God and the consequences of that act in the life of the believer or the believing community. Peace with God and the removal of barriers to table fellowship between believing Jews and believing Gentiles follow necessarily from the reality this doctrine speaks of, but the righteousness of God, the ineradicable forensic element in the human condition post-fall, and the essentially object-focused character of faith—each have a more basic and determinative role in the exposition of the doctrine itself. The proper starting point is God, not the human predicament. Click To Tweet

“That He Might Be Just and the Justifier”

We start with God. This may at first seem counterintuitive, since justification only by faith is also described as the justification of the ungodly. Isn’t the doctrine first and foremost about how sinful human creatures are put in the right with God? Isn’t it a soteriological doctrine, teaching about what is involved in our salvation, rather than part of theology proper? Such questions are no doubt legitimate, and they alert us to the contemporary danger of allowing biblical teaching about salvation to be swallowed up by accounts of the Trinity that are extended in a universalist direction. Nevertheless, in both Romans 3—“so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26)—and even in Romans 4—where Abraham is a pattern for “the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly” (4:5)—our attention is drawn back to God, the one who justifies. There is a sense in which the doctrine is first and foremost a doctrine about God and how he acts in a perfect expression of his being and character when he provides the grounds and means by which sinners are justified. Salvation has this larger context: it “occurs as part of the divine self-exposition; its final end is the reiteration of God’s majesty and the glorification of God by all creatures.”[5]

So how God acts in the economy of creation and redemption is entirely consistent with God’s eternal being and character. In technical terms, the divine missions arise appropriately from the divine processions. Or as Jonathan Edwards put it, “’Tis fit that the order of the acting of the persons of the Trinity should be agreeable to the order of their subsisting.”[6] Christian soteriology is enclosed and undergirded by the Christian doctrine of God while not being simply another element of that doctrine.

Karl Barth recognized this when he began his treatment of the doctrine of justification with a remarkable series of questions that he believed illustrate “the problem of the doctrine of justification”:

To what extent does God act and speak and prove and show Himself in the justification of man . . . as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in whom there is no contradiction or caprice or disorder, no paradox or obscurity, but only light? To what extent does He demonstrate and maintain in this remarkable justification His righteousness as the Creator confronting the creature and as the Lord of His covenant with man? . . . How in this justification can God be effectively true to Himself and therefore to man—to man and therefore primarily to Himself?[7]

Barth was, of course, not the first to notice the importance of the strictly theological dimension of the doctrine. Thomas Aquinas, fully seven centuries earlier, insisted that “all things are dealt with in sacred doctrine in terms of God, either because they are God himself or because they are relative to God as their origin and end.”[8] Whatever the precise topic being considered, theology rightly understood traces the lines of connection to the person, character, and purpose of God. Aquinas specifically applied this thinking to the doctrines of salvation, concluding that “knowledge of the divine persons was necessary for us . . . chiefly, that we may think rightly of the salvation of the human race, accomplished by the incarnate Son and by the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[9] Almost equidistant in time between Aquinas and Barth, John Owen concluded that “the greatness, the majesty, the holiness, and the sovereign authority of God, are always to be present with us in a due sense of them, when we inquire how we may be justified before him.”[10]

Such a connection is critical not simply for a right ordering of our doctrine of salvation in Christ but also for its right application in terms of assurance and comfort. John Webster pointed in this direction when he remarked, “Salvation is secure because the works of the redeemer and the sanctifier can be traced to the inner life of God, behind which there lies nothing.”[11] In summary, if theology is an account of God and therefore of all things in relation to God, it should not be surprising that a theological exposition of the doctrine of justification begins at this point too.

*Read Dr. Thompson’s entire chapter in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls.


[1] Martin Luther, commenting on Psalm 130:4, stated, “When it stands by this article, the church stands, when [this article] falls the church falls.” In XV Psalmos graduum (1532), in WA 40.3:352.1–3.

[2] In Luther’s words, “On this article rests all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil and the world.” Martin Luther, “The Schmalkaldic Articles” (1537), 1.5, in WA 50:199.22–200.5; or William R. Russell, Luther’s Theological Testament: The Schmalkald Articles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 122.

[3] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 173.

[4] John Webster, “Rector et iudex super omnia genera doctrinarum? The Place of the Doctrine of Justification,” in What Is Justification About? Reformed Contributions to an Ecumenical Theme, ed. Michael Weinrich and John P. Burgess, 35–56 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 39.

[5] John Webster, “It Was the Will of the Lord to Bruise Him: Soteriology and the Doctrine of God,” in God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, vol. 1, God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 148.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, “Economy of the Trinity and Covenant of Redemption” (1730) [“Miscellanies” entry no. 1062], in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 20, The “Miscellanies”: Entry Nos. 833–1152, ed. Amy Plantinga Pauw (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 431.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, bk. 1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Part 1 (1953), ed. T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 517

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.1.7, in Blackfriars ed. (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1963), 1:27.

[9] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.32.1 (my trans.; Blackfriars trans., 6:109).

[10] John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ, Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated (1677), in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5, Faith and Its Evidences (repr., London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 13.

[11] Webster, “It Was the Will of the Lord,” 154.

Mark Thompson

Dr. Mark Thompson (PhD, University of Oxford) serves as Principal of Moore College, where he is also the head of department of Theology, Philosophy, and Ethics, and has taught doctrine since 1991. His research interests include the doctrines of Scripture, Christ, and justification by faith, as well as Martin Luther and the Reformation. He is the author and editor of several books, including A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture, and Celebrating the Reformation: Its Legacy and Continuing Relevance.

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