Recently, I taught on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, one of the most precious truths for the Christian. I love how the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the biblical teaching on the subject: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Q&A 33). What a wonderful truth. When we believe in Jesus, He not only forgives our sins, but He also declares that we are righteous—that we have met all His demands perfectly. We get not only a clean slate, as it were, but a positive record of righteousness that secures our eternal life. If we trust in Christ alone, we need not fear that God will fail to regard us as having met the requirements for salvation, for through faith we have received the righteousness of Christ. It has been imputed to us—put on our record before God’s heavenly courtroom—forever.
It is vital that we get all that right; otherwise, our justification will provide us with no assurance. Particularly important is the notion of justifying faith as something that receives the righteousness of Christ, for there is a common misconception that our faith itself is our righteousness. If our faith is our righteousness, however, our assurance will be only as strong as our faith is. That is a recipe for no assurance at all. As we all well know, our faith has its ups and downs. Some days our trust in the Lord feels especially strong, enough to move mountains. At other times, we are like the father of the boy with the unclean spirit who cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). If our faith is actually our righteousness or is actually what justifies us, we will have no assurance when our trust is at a low ebb.
Thanks be to God, however, faith itself is not our righteousness, but it receives righteousness. When Paul is describing faith and justification in Romans 3–4, he never says that faith itself is our righteousness. Faith and righteousness are not identified in the Greek; rather, faith is counted for righteousness. Faith acts with the aim of grabbing on to righteousness.
The actual righteousness that justifies us is not faith but rather the righteousness of Christ Himself. Paul makes this plain in Romans 5:12–21, where it is the obedience of Christ that secures our redemption and righteousness before God. We see it also in places such as 1 Corinthians 1:30, where Paul says that Christ is our righteousness.
Ultimately, faith justifies us only because it holds on to Christ and His righteousness. Properly speaking, Christ’s work justifies and saves us, not our faith. To be sure, faith is required, but our salvation does not depend on the strength of our faith. It depends on the perfectly strong and sufficient Christ, and a weak faith no less than a strong faith lays hold of Jesus. Therefore, let us rejoice—whether our faith today seems weak or strong, we are united to Christ and thus righteous in the sight of God forever.