John Calvin, the great Reformer, spoke for many when he declared that justification is “the main hinge on which religion turns”. Why is it so important? Because “unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.”
Such a critical doctrine demands to be understood. This is an attempt to explain the essence of what Protestantism has traditionally taken to be the essence of the biblical doctrine of justification. The goal here is not defending that this understanding is correct, but rather to clarify the traditional Protestant view so that it can be more readily compared to the many divergent views in circulation today.
Charles Hodge captured the essence of the Protestant view of the biblical teaching on justification when he wrote that justification is “a sentence of life pronounced upon righteousness”.  There are two aspects of this definition that need unfolding if it is to be understood.
A Title to Eternal Life
First, in justification, we are accepted by God into the blessing of eternal life. He pronounces us to be in possession of His blessing of eternal life and, by this pronouncement, causes us to be in actual possession of this blessing. We are, in other words, given a title to eternal life. Just as I received a title to my car when I purchased it which made me a possessor of the car with a right to access it, so also having a title to eternal life means possessing the right to live forever in God’s blessing with access to His presence. Justification is not the experience of the blessing of life but is rather our right to have the experience of life. In the same way, the title to my car does not consist in my driving of my car, but is that which gives me the right to drive my car.
To use another analogy, just as a key gives access to a locked door, so also justification is the granting of access to eternal life. The difference is that a key just gives you the ability to open a door, whereas justification actually brings the possession of eternal life.
The Basis of Our Title to Life
Second, there is a basis upon which this title to eternal life is given. We are given a right to eternal life in justification, but why does God give us that right? That is the question answered here. The basis of our eternal life is the reason that we have a title to that life; it is the reason that we possess it.
This might appear ambiguous at first. Take the example of a courtroom. If an innocent man is on trial for murder and the court acquits him upon discovering that his fingerprints do not match those on the murder weapon, we might say that the reason he was acquitted is the coming to light of this knowledge.
That is not what we mean by basis. For in the deepest sense, that man was not set free because his prints were not on the gun. He was set free because He did not commit the crime. The prints are simply the evidence that he was innocent, not the reason he was innocent. The fact that he was innocent, then, is the basis of his being set free (i.e., being given the right to freedom). The existence of somebody else’s prints on the murder weapon is the evidence which revealed the fact that he was innocent. It is in this sense that we are using the terms “basis” and “evidence” concerning justification.
In the same way, then, the perfect alien (i.e., outside of us as opposed to inherent in us) righteousness of Christ is the sole basis of our right to eternal life. Faith is the sole means of receiving this righteousness. A “means” is different from a “basis”. The paycheck a worker receives is given on the basis of the work he did, not on the basis of his accepting that paycheck. The acceptance of the check is the means to receiving it; the 40 hours of work he is getting paid for is the basis of the paycheck.
The faith that justifies necessarily results in an obedient life, but that obedience is in no way the means or basis of our justification. Our good works, rather, are the evidence that we have true faith, and thus the evidence that we possess the righteousness of Christ—but not the basis of our title to eternal life. Just as the lack of fingerprints on the gun did not make the man innocent, but revealed his innocence, so neither do our good works make us right with God but, rather, reveal that we are right with God.
Finally, a difference between the courtroom analogy and our justification should be mentioned. In the courtroom analogy, the basis of the man’s acquittal was his innocence. Our right to eternal life, however, is not based simply upon the removal of our sins in Christ but also on the positive obedience (righteousness) of Christ reckoned to our account. In justification, to use an analogy from the life of Joseph, we are not simply set free from prison but are made rulers of Egypt. Innocence by itself would set us free from hell, but would not secure for us a title to heavenly and eternal glory. That is based upon the positive righteousness of Christ.
To summarize in the words of John Calvin, “[A man] is said to be justified in God’s sight who is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and has been accepted on account of his righteousness.” Justification is the reckoning of righteousness to our account and the consequent right to all the blessings that belong to perfect righteousness.
For those who hold to views of justification different from that described above the question which needs to be raised is this: are you denying that God gives us a title to eternal life on the basis (in the sense described above) of the righteousness of Christ alone, or are you simply saying that the term justification is not the best way to describe this reality? Are you using simply “justification” to refer to both the reality described above as well as our inner transformation or are you saying that our title to eternal life is, in part, based upon (in the sense described above) the transformation that God works in us? In a nutshell, do you affirm that our right to eternal life is based (in the sense described above) upon the alien righteousness of Christ alone received through faith alone in Christ alone and not at all on the moral transformation that God works in us? Let us never forget that it is only through Christ Jesus that we have been justified, and not through our own works.
- John Calvin, Institutes, III, XI, 2.
- Charles Hodge, Justification by Faith Alone, (Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1995), p. 27.
- John Calvin, Institutes, III, XI, 2.