Justification by Faith Alone -- By: Norman P. Shepherd

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 11:2 (Spring 2002)
Article: Justification by Faith Alone
Author: Norman P. Shepherd


Justification by Faith Alone

Norman P. Shepherd

“Justification by faith alone” (justificatio sola fide) summarizes the doctrine of justification that has come to us as the great legacy of the Protestant Reformation. We frequently hear this formula used in preaching and teaching, but what do we mean when we say that justification is by faith alone? How should we understand it? How does justification by faith alone function in gospel ministry, and how does it shape gospel ministry? If we were to formulate the doctrine of justification using as our data only what a particular pastor actually says and does from day to day in his ministry, what would it look like? How would it compare to what we have, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms?

There is an expression we commonly hear that goes something like this: “Jesus accepts you just the way you are.” The idea seems to be that we are sinners and not worthy of God’s attention. In fact, we even deserve to be punished for our sin. But not to worry! Jesus accepts you just the way you are. We are justified and saved by faith, not by works. There is nothing we can do or need to do to escape from sin and its consequences. Only Jesus can save us and he saves us when we put our faith in him. That’s all it takes, a simple act of faith. Jesus accepts us just the way we are!

Is that what we mean when we say that we are justified by faith alone?

Sometimes we are told that in order to win sinners to Christ we must not be judgmental. People will say that they have been attracted to a certain church because the pastor was not judgmental. Liberal ministers are characteristically non-judgmental, but increasingly evangelical ministers are also non-judgmental. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1)? Church members will sometimes quote that text when their spiritual leaders begin to exercise pastoral care that might result in a formal process of discipline.

But is it good to be non-judgmental? Is that what we mean when we say that we are justified by faith alone?

My intention in what follows it is not to present the doctrine of justification in any comprehensive or systematic way, but is simply to explore the meaning of the doctrinal formula, “justification by faith alone,” and to do that by looking at the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The Alone Instrument

Although “justification by faith alone” is commonly used among us, the interesting thing is that the Westminster Standards do not use that formula. Neither the Con...

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