Article by Wade Jackson
In the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, there is no doubt the framers of the
Confession were adamant in defending and defining justification to be by faith alone. As James Buchanan describes justification, “By Justification we mean—man’s acceptance with God, or his being regarded and treated as righteous in His sight—as the object of His favour, and not of His wrath; of His blessing, and not of His curse.” Justification is not found in infused righteousness, nor anything wrought by the believer, nor anything done by the believer, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith which the believer does not have of themselves, but it being the gift of God. The historical background, biblical basis, and practical application of the first paragraph in the chapter on Justification will help us understand the historic struggle over this doctrine, its biblical foundation, and why it is still of the utmost importance to the church today. Chapter 11, paragraph 1 of the Confession reads,
Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ's active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.
In the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, it is evident the framers of the Confession were deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation view of justification. The doctrine of justification gets its own chapter in this great confession of faith. The historical background
for this chapter on justification is found within the Reformers and the quintessential quote
coming from the great reformer, Martin Luther that sola fide (faith alone), “is the article upon
which the church stands or falls”. This alluded to the controversy between the Roman Catholics view of Justification and the reformers view of Justification, sola fide. RC Sproul says, “When the Reformers declared Rome apostate and no longer a true church, they did so not because Rome denied the Trinity, the deity of Christ, His atonement, and His resurrection, all of which were deemed of the esse or essence of Christian truth, but because Rome condemned the doctrine of justification by faith alone or sola fide.” This doctrine was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and the Reformers believed this to be an essential truth of Christianity. Roman Catholicism does define justification as being by faith, however, there is a major difference with the absence of the word alone. In other words, Roman Catholicism defines justification to be by faith, though not by faith alone.
At the heart of the great controversy is the issue of Christ’s righteousness. “This turns us
back to the critical issue of justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the
believer versus justification by the infusion of Christ’s righteousness into the believer. Since the infusion of Christ’s righteousness is initiated by faith, Rome can say that justification is by
faith.” The Reformation was keenly focused on the difference between infused and imputed
righteousness. Sproul went on to say about Rome’s beliefs, “Since the infusion of Christ’s
righteousness does not complete our justification immediately, we are not justified by faith
alone.” Essentially, Roman Catholicism requires the believer to cooperate with this infused
righteousness for their justification to be complete. Another great reformer in John Calvin had sharp words for Rome on this very topic:
Faith therefore does not open up an access to him to righteousness, in order that his justification may afterwards be completed elsewhere… As far as a fixed and immovable station is from a transient passage, so far are they in this dogma of theirs from the meaning of Paul. To collect all the passages of Scripture were tedious and superfluous. From these few, I presume, it is already superabundantly clear, that the completion, not less than the commencement of justification, must be ascribed to faith.
Calvin’s argument was against Rome’s view of faith’s role in justification. The reformed view,
as presented above by Calvin, of faith’s role in justification is that it not only begins but also
completes our justification. Rome viewed faith as only the beginning of justification, and with
the help of infused righteousness it makes the believer capable of complete justification through meritorious works. Contrasting with the reformed view that “taught justification by faith alone through the imputed righteousness of Christ.” In other words, the reformed view of justification is not based on any righteousness of the believer, but it is based solely on the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ onto the believer. The Reformers were in unity on this doctrine being the hinge on which the Christian faith turns, without it a person has no “foundation on which to establish your salvation” or “build piety toward God.”
Reviewing the history behind the controversy that sparked the protestant reformation is as
relevant today as it was to the framers of the confession. The Roman Catholic view of
justification was up for debate at the Council of Trent in the mid sixteenth century in response to the protestant reformation, however, the canons and decrees of Trent make it clear they reject the reformation view of justification by faith alone. The doctrine of Trent remains today as the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, “the doctrine of justification by faith alone as laid out in the 1689 Confession is still anathema to the Vatican.” It goes without saying, understanding the doctrine of justification is still immensely important today.
There is much proof in scripture for support of the first paragraph of the chapter of the
confession titled “Of Justification.” First, we look to Paul’s letter to the Romans to find our
biblical basis for the beginning of the first paragraph in Chapter 11 of the Confession that reads, “Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth”. Romans 8:30 states “and those whom he called he also justified”. Said another way, those who are called, those who believe, those who come to Jesus Christ by faith, are freely justified. Who are those who come to Christ by faith? The first part of Romans 8:30 tells us: “those whom he predestined he also called”. The full reading of the verse becomes what is known as the “golden chain of redemption”, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The subjects of justification are those who God effectually calls.
The Confession goes on to say, “not by infusing righteousness into them, but by
pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous”. The framers of the confession draw a line in the sand with the Roman Catholic Church by the wording used in the confession. By clearly stating “not by infusing righteousness into them”, the framers are building out the case that justification is by faith alone. Rob Ventura on this says, “Justification does not involve a change of nature but a change of the sinner’s legal standing before God’s law.” 9 Romans 4:5 states “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”. This makes the person being justified simultaneously declared just by God, and still yet a sinner. Romans 4:8 states “blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Also, Ephesians 1:7 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace”. The believer’s sins are forgiven and their legal standing before God is now accepted as righteous. These are forensic terms, John MacArthur says “God legally declares that we are no longer deemed guilty under the divine law but are forgiven and counted righteous in God’s sight.” In regeneration, God makes us a new creation, a total transformation, going from a love of evil to a love of the things of God. This work God does within the believer, which then brings with it sanctification. In justification, God provides a “not guilty” verdict compared to a court room verdict of our day, and He does this without us. In other words, in justification God does not make the sinner righteous, instead He declares the sinner righteous. This shows the important distinction that must be made between justification and sanctification.
Next the Confession states “not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for
Christ's sake alone”. The righteousness that we wrought in ourselves and bring to the table in the final analysis is that of filthy rags as Isaiah 64:6 clearly states, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment”. Our good deeds and obedience could never be enough, simply because it is not perfect. God’s standard is perfection, and there is only one who has a perfect righteousness and that is Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:30 states “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption”. We must have His perfect righteousness imputed onto our account, or we would never be allowed entry into heaven because anything short of that is not acceptable by God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This section clearly objects to any form of justification by faith plus works or anything done by the believer, and it is “for Christ’s sake alone”. As Romans 5:19 states “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” Those who have faith will be made righteous in Jesus Christ.
The fourth part of this paragraph reads, “not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing,
or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ's
active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith”. The act of faith, nor believing, nor any other act of obedience is the basis of the believer’s righteousness. The basis of the believer’s righteousness is the righteousness of God as described in Romans 3:21-22 “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Joel Beeke writes “Too many Christians live in constant despondency because they cannot distinguish between the rock on which they stand and the faith by which they stand upon the rock. Faith is not our rock; Christ is our rock.” Believers are justified by faith, not because of the act of faith, but because of the righteousness of the One that faith is in.
The Confession makes a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. This
distinction may be made but it may never be separated into two different works. Sam Waldron makes this point clear by saying “The active and passive obedience of Christ are not two separate parts of Christ’s work, but His one work looked at in two ways.” Christ’s passive obedience simply consists of His suffering the penalty for sins, whereas His active obedience refers to actively obeying God’s law. Two conditions were required for justification: first, the forgiveness of sins and secondly a positive righteousness. Jesus met the first requirement by his passive obedience in suffering on the cross the penalty that was due to us because of our sins. He met the second requirement by actively and perfectly obeying God’s law.
Lastly, this paragraph of the Confession states “which faith they have not of themselves;
it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8 states this clearly “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”. Scripture is clear that sinners are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and that “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65), and that those who have faith it has been “granted” (Phil. 1:29). In other words, it is impossible for us to have saving faith in and of ourselves. It is the gift of God!
The Confession’s paragraph on justification brings us the answer to the practical question
that is asked of all religions, “How can I be right with or just before God?” We now understand our justification to be through faith alone. In this faith, God is just, holy, pure, and perfect and yet declares sinners righteous. Through this faith, sinners receive the imputation of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ all-sufficient work in his substitutionary death on the cross. The legal status of justification is then changed, through faith alone, from “guilty” to “not guilty.” This has massive implications on the Christian life.
The first implication is peace with God. Paul says, “Therefore being justified by faith, we
have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1). Beeke says, “The divine
verdict of righteousness pronounced in the heavenly courts is read, rejoiced in, and treasured in the earthly court of human conscience.” This is an objective peace, that is as “shoes for your feet” (Eph. 6:15) helping us be able to “stand against the schemes of the devil”. (Eph. 6:11). This peace is also vital to the once legalist. For the legalist to understand that they are declared righteous in the holy court of God, should start to break down the walls of legalism in their heart.
The next implication is that it brings a joy in knowing there is reconciliation with God.
This is a joy that crushes the dam of sin holding back the waters that flow into a delightful
relationship with God. This joy is no longer held back by guilt and shame, but rather it is let
loose knowing that nothing can separate those in Christ from the love of God. (Rom. 8:35-39).
Third, it brings a sense of understanding no human judgments has any effect on the fact
that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1) Man may judge and accuse, however believers do not look to man, rather they look to “Jesus Christ the righteous” as “He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 2:1-2).
Lastly, justification is the foundation for the believer’s assurance. Good works and deeds
are evidences of salvation, however the minute we rest upon them as our foundation for our
assurance we will see them fail us. If salvation were by works, how many works are enough to
know that we have done enough to be accepted by God? If this were the case, it would be a
continuous battle of the mind contemplating if I am truly justified in God’s sight. Praise God
“since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1). We now get to look forward to judgment as our justification rests solely in the work of Christ, that we take hold of, by faith alone.
Wade Jackson and his wife, Kaylee live in Lebanon, VA with their two children. He is faithful member and deacon of Calvary Bible Church and is currently enrolled at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary where this article was previously written for scholarly purposes.