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“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” says the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But which doctrine describes how He brings us into a relationship so that we might enjoy Him? Justification by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

This marvelous centerground of the biblical gospel proves the all-sufficiency of Christ the only Savior. Through it, God is glorified as utterly merciful and good, as both supremely holy and compassionate—and therefore people can find their comfort and delight in Him. Through this doctrine, even struggling believers can know a firm standing before God, gleefully knowing Him as their “Abba, Father,” confident that He is powerful to save and to keep us to the uttermost.

comfort and joy

To grasp this, consider how differently Roman Catholic and Reformation theologies think of our assurance of salvation. Can a believer know he is saved?

On the side of the Reformation, the Puritan Richard Sibbes argued that without such assurance, we simply cannot live Christian lives as God would have us. God, he said, wants us to be thankful, cheerful, rejoicing, and strong in faith, but we will be none of these things unless we are sure that God and Christ are ours for good.

There be many duties and dispositions that God requires which we can not be in without assurance of salvation on good grounds. What is that? God bids us be thankful in all things. How can I know that, unless I know God is mine and Christ is mine? . . . God enjoineth us to rejoice. “Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice,” Philip, iv. 4. Can a man rejoice that his name is written in heaven, and not know his name is written there? . . . Alas! how can I perform cheerful service to God, when I doubt whether he be my God and Father or no? . . . God requires a disposition in us that we should be full of encouragements, and strong in the Lord; and that we should be courageous for his cause in withstanding his enemies and our enemies. How can there be courage in resisting our corruptions, Satan’s temptations? How can there be courage in suffering persecution and crosses in the world, if there be not some particular interest we have in Christ and in God?

Yet the very confidence that Sibbes upheld as a Christian privilege was damned by Roman Catholic theology as the sin of presumption. It was precisely one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed:

This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of . . . glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.

That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the Roman Catholic system: if we can enter heaven only because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, of course nobody can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness.

Justification by faith alone not only brings the joy that the Apostle Paul commands; it simultaneously humbles and emboldens those who cherish it.

But while such thinking made sense in Roman Catholicism, it bred fear, not joy. The need to have personal merit before God for salvation left people terrified at the prospect of judgment. It was exactly why the young Martin Luther shook with fear at the thought of death and why he said he hated God (instead of enjoying Him). He could not be thankful, cheerful, rejoicing, and strong in faith since he believed only in God as a judge who was against him.

With his discovery that sinners are freely declared righteous in Christ, that all changed. No longer was his confidence for that day placed in himself: it all rested on Christ and His sufficient righteousness. And so the horrifying Doomsday became for him what he would call “the most happy Last Day,” the day of Jesus, his friend. The consolation it brings to all who hold to Reformation theology was captured perfectly in the striking wording of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Question: What comfort is it to you that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?

Answer: In all my sorrow and persecution, I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me. (Q&A 52)

humility and valor

Justification by faith alone not only brings the joy that the Apostle Paul commands; it simultaneously humbles and emboldens those who cherish it.

Through justification by faith alone, believers are awakened both to who God is and to who they are. Unlike how they once thought, they realize that He is great, glorious, merciful, and beautiful in His holiness—and they are not. As justification lifts up Christ the super-sufficient Savior, they are like Isaiah, whose vision of the Lord in glory, high and lifted up, caused him to cry: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). Alternative gospels, where sin is a small problem and so Christ a small savior (or assistant), never have the same effect.

The humility we learn through justification, glorying in Christ and not ourselves, turns out to be the wellspring of all spiritual health. When our eyes are opened to the love of God for us sinners, we let slip our masks. Condemned as sinners yet justified, we can begin to be honest about ourselves. Loved despite our unloveliness, we begin to love. Given peace with God, we begin to know an inner peace and joy. Shown the magnificence of God above all things, we become more resilient, trembling in wonder at God and not man.

This was the transformation Luther experienced through his discovery of justification by faith alone. Luther often described himself as an anxious young man so wrapped up in himself that everything frightened him. Even the sound of a leaf blown in the wind would make him flee (Lev. 26:36). That changed through his encounter with the gospel of Christ, as Roland Bainton recounts in the splendid final words of his biography:

The God of Luther, as of Moses, was the God who inhabits the storm clouds and rides on the wings of the wind. At his nod the earth trembles, and the people before him are as a drop in the bucket. He is a God of majesty and power, inscrutable, terrifying, devastating, and consuming in his anger. Yet the All Terrible is the All Merciful too. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord . . .” But how shall we know this? In Christ, only in Christ. In the Lord of life, born in the squalor of a cow stall and dying as a malefactor under the desertion and the derision of men, crying unto God and receiving for answer only the trembling of the earth and the blinding of the sun, even by God forsaken, and in that hour taking to himself and annihilating our iniquity, trampling down the hosts of hell and disclosing within the wrath of the All Terrible the love that will not let us go.

This, Bainton concludes, was the effect:

No longer did Luther tremble at the rustling of a wind-blown leaf, and instead of calling upon St. Anne he declared himself able to laugh at thunder and jagged bolts from out the storm. This was what enabled him to utter such words as these: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

The humility Luther found before the majesty and mercy of God was not gloomy or timid, forlorn or feeble. It was full-throated, joyous, and valiant.

That is the stamp of the humility that is found in justification by faith alone. Captivated by the magnificence of God, such believers will not be so drawn to man-centered therapeutic religion. Under the radiance of His glory, they will not want to establish their own little empires. Their tiny achievements will seem petty, their feuds and personal agendas odious. He will loom large, making them bold to please God and not men. They will not dither or stammer with the gospel. But aware of their own redemption, they will share His meekness and gentleness, not breaking a bruised reed. They will be quick to serve, quick to bless, quick to repent, and quick to laugh at themselves, for their glory is not in themselves but in Christ. This is the happy integrity found through the lifting up of Christ in the good news of justification by faith alone.

Justification and Judgment

Don’t Follow Your Heart

Keep Reading The Doctrine of Justification

From the October 2021 Issue
Oct 2021 Issue