Why justification by faith?
The story of mankind is that of creation, ruin and then salvation. Jesus in history sets up the New Covenant so as to save sinners from their sins and the consequences of their sins. But what is sin? Sin is any want of, or transgression of, the law of God (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 14). In other words, sins can be sins of omission, not doing what is right and ought to be done, or sins of commission, doing what is wrong. Sin is an objective reality, independent of ethnicity, culture, language, or religion. Everyone sins because we are all sinners, born with the original guilt of Adam and committing sins each and every day.
The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23a). Wrong must be punished, treason against the King of the Universe must be avenged. Good works cannot erase the punishments for sins, in the same way that volunteering for charity events will not prevent a murderer from being convicted of murder and paying the penalty for that. To say that we can do good works to "balance" our ledger is to show a failure to understand how detestable sins is to God. God is so holy that what we think of as a small sin is so detestable to him, like what we might feel when we think of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust he engineered and presided over.
All Christians believe in the sinfulness of mankind, and the need to trust Jesus Christ in order to be saved. But the Reformed faith emphasizes how terrible sin is before God. According to the Scriptures, and the Reformed teaching, humanity is totally depraved. Our basic slant is sin, and we cannot help but sin. As Scripture states, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil" (Jer. 13:23), and "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Rom. 3:10b-11). Total depravity means that every aspect of our being is tainted with sin, not that we are as sinful as we can be. Obviously, there is always room for further wickedness, as the more modern examples of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler have shown us.
We are condemned because of our sins. All our "good works" are like soiled garments (Is. 64:6; "menstrual cloths") before God, as whatever does not proceed out of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). As the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes on this topic,
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (WCF 16.7)
When we think that we can do good in order to be right with God, we show that we do not understand the holiness of God. The only "good work" that God accepts is perfect and perpetual obedience, or 100%, which only Jesus has. In God's marking scheme, anything less than 100%, even 99%, is a failing mark. Therefore, while God does promise eternal life for doing good and only good (Rom. 2:1-11), the fact of the matter is that no one does good according to God's standards.
That is why the doctrine of justification is so important. In justification, we are proclaimed righteous because of faith in Christ (Rom. 3:22), not because of our works, because we do not have the perfect obedience required. Historically, the doctrine of justification is important because of the Medieval idea of salvation by faith and good works. But if our "good works" is so imperfect and tainted with sin, then "good works" cannot play any role in getting us right before God.
Regeneration by the Holy Spirit
Before we go to justification, we need to back up a bit to speak of the Holy Spirit. If we are totally depraved, that means that even our wills are tainted with sin. As Romans 3:11 states, no one seeks for God. How is it that anyone can turn to God in the first place? Roman Catholicism "solves this" by having baptism remove the guilt of original sin. Many Evangelicals "solve" this by making the human will at least in part exempt from the corruption of sin. But the Scriptures do not solve the problem of sin and the need to turn to Christ this way. Rather, it is written, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day." (Jn. 6:44). Jesus' solution is that He draws people to Him. God in the person of the Holy Spirit draws people to faith in Christ (Jn. 3:1-8), granting them faith as a gift (Eph. 2:8). The Holy Spirit regenerates, or brings about spiritual life, in a person, who then turns to Christ in faith.
Justification: Faith Alone
If good works cannot be a part of making us right before God, then it does not play any part in our justification period. Justification is by faith alone (sola fide), apart from works (Eph. 2:8). But what is faith? "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel" (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86). In other words, faith is trust. Faith is not a work that one does, but an acknowledgment that one cannot do anything and has to thus rely on another, Jesus Christ; We receive and rest upon Him alone. Faith is the naked hand through which one grasp the salvation offered by Christ in the Gospel, the hand of a beggar absolutely unable to offer anything in return for this gift from God to us.
Justification: Grace Alone
Technically, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, not by faith alone. This is because our faith is not the reason we are saved, but the way we take hold of salvation. What saves us is God's grace; it is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). God does not see our faith and save us, but rather He sees Christ and save us. This is actually a very good thing, for imagine if God is to judge us according to how much faith we have? That would make faith into a work, and those who have more faith will be saved while those with little faith might not be saved. But Jesus through one of his parables speak of the power of such small faith even as the faith of a mustard seed that can move mountains (Mt. 17:20). The reason why Jesus can say this is because what saves is God's grace, not how much faith we have. Faith after all states that we are powerless to save ourselves, so what does "strong powerlessness" and "weak powerlessness" on the issue of faith even mean?
In the Reformed tradition, the emphasis on grace alone is important in light of the Arminian controversy from 1610 to 1618. The Arminians believe that God sees our faith and rewards our faith with eternal life. The Canons of Dordt, written in 1618-1619 in response to the Arminians, rejects this as error. As it states,
[This error is rejected:] Who teach that what is involved in the new covenant of grace which God the Father made with men through the intervening of Christ's death is not that we are justified before God and saved through faith, insofar as it accepts Christ's merit, but rather that God, having withdrawn his demand for perfect obedience to the law, counts faith itself, and the imperfect obedience of faith, as perfect obedience to the law, and graciously looks upon this as worthy of the reward of eternal life. (Canons of Dordt, 2, Rejection of Errors 4)
No, it is grace alone that saves us. And the basis for our justification and our salvation is Christ and Him alone.
[to be continued]