March 27, 2013
ii. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.
The Westminster Confession unabashedly declares justification through faith alone. It defines faith as "receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness," calling faith "the alone instrument of justification." In our next study, we will see how the faith that justifies is joined to good works. But first we must emphasize that works are not part of justification itself. We are justified by trusting in Christ's work; our own works contributing nothing to justification. Paul stated this clearly in Galatians 2:16, "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ."
While "faith alone" is stressed in paragraph two of the chapter eleven, this emphasis also plays an important part of paragraph one's teaching of the nature of justification. We have noted that justification is by imputation, not infusion. So how is Christ's righteousness imputed to Christians? Paragraph one states, "not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone." This means that when we trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ - both his sin atoning death and his perfect law keeping life - we are justified on the basis of his works and not our own. I like to stress that justification is most certainly by works - indeed, in an important sense, sinners are justified only on the basis of works. But the glory of the gospel is that we are justified by Christ's works, which we receive through faith alone.
This is our answer to the Roman Catholic charge that justification through faith alone involves a "legal fiction" that disgraces God. They argue that, under our doctrine, God justifies those who have no legal basis for righteousness. In reality, however, our doctrine teaches that sinners are justified by a perfect legal fulfillment under God's justice. Christ's works have perfectly fulfilled God's law and his atoning death has perfectly paid the penalty of our sins demanded by the law. Therefore, we are justified through faith alone, apart from our works, by the righteous works of Jesus Christ. On a pastoral level, this reminds Christians that in justification it is not merely God's mercy that declares our salvation. Justification more directly involves God's justice demanding our acceptance because all of its requirements have been satisfied by the perfect work of Jesus Christ for us.
The Confession is careful to avoid another error, this time coming not from Roman Catholicism but from Protestant Arminianism. This is the teaching that we are justified by faith as a substitute for works. Under this view, recently championed by Robert Gundry, since sinners cannot be justified by the law (which we have broken) we are instead justified by that act of faith, which is our righteousness. The Confession answers by specifying that we are justified not "by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness." Faith is not a substitute for law keeping in justification. Rather, through faith the sinner receives Christ's law fulfilling work on our behalf: God imputes "the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith." The Arminians claim the proof text of Genesis 15:6, where Abraham "believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness." We should admit, they say, that this teaches that faith is our righteousness before God. In Romans 4:4-5, however, where Paul exegetes that text, the apostle insists that justification is by imputation and that we are justified while remaining "ungodly." So it is not the case that believing makes us righteousness, since in justification we remain ungodly while Christ's righteousness is "credited" to us.
According to the Confession, then, faith is "the alone instrument of justification," as the means by which we receive Christ's righteousness by imputation. Finally, the Confession stresses that the very faith by which we are justified is "not of themselves, it is the gift of God." This stems from Paul's vitally important statement: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). According to the Bible, Christians are personally involved in our justification through faith. Yet justification remains by grace, since that faith is God's gift to us and God's work in us. Expressing the genius of the Gospel, Paul explains: "That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace" (Rom. 4:16).