The Rich Comfort of Justification by Faith Alone (Bavinck)

I’m so thankful to Jesus for his perfect and complete work to save me from my sin and misery.  I’m so thankful that my justification doesn’t depend upon my feelings, emotions, prayers, devotion, or good works.  Although my Christian life is far from perfect, and although I lament my sin and sporadic coldness in the faith, I have good confidence that I stand righteous before God because of what Christ has done in my place.  The biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone (apart from works) in Christ alone (and nothing else) has truly given me a rock on which to stand and comfortably rest.  Herman Bavinck put this truth well around 100 years ago.

“The benefit of justification through faith alone has in it a rich comfort for the Christian.  The forgiveness of his sins, the hope for the future, the certainty concerning eternal salvation, do not depend upon the degree of holiness which he has achieved in life, but are firmly rooted in the grace of God and in the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.  If these benefits had to derive their certainty from the good works of the Christian they would always, even unto death, remain unsure, for even the holiest of men have only a small beginning of perfect obedience.  Accordingly, the believers would be constantly torn between fear and anxiety, they could never stand in the freedom with which Christ has set them free, and, nevertheless being unable to live without certainty, they would have to take recourse to church and priest, to altar and sacrament, to religious rites and practices.  Such is the condition of thousands of Christians both inside and outside of the Roman church.  They do not understand the glory and the comfort of free justification.”

“But the believer whose eye has been opened to the riches of this benefit, sees the matter differently.  He has come to the humble acknowledgement that good works, whether these consist of emotional excitements, of soul experiences, or of external deeds, can never be the foundation but only the fruit of faith.  His salvation is fixed outside of himself in Christ Jesus and His righteousness, and therefore can never again waver.  His house is built upon the rock, and therefore it can stand the vehemence of the rain, the floods, and the wind.”

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, p. 466.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


The Importance of “Christ Alone” (Luther)

Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (recently reprinted by Lexham Press) is an excellent resource to have when studying Matthew 5-7.  The language/translation is a bit dated, but it is outstanding and well worth the effort.  Today I read the following, which I marked up quite a bit:

For if I cling to this, that Christ alone is my righteousness and holiness, no monk will ever persuade or mislead me by his hood, rosary, this or that work and childish human notion. For through faith I am a judge of all imaginable conditions and ways of living, so that I can condemn everything that offers to show me anything else that is to avail before God.

In other words, Luther said that if we understand that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, we’ll rightly reject and condemn any other way to be right with God.  Luther continued:

But if I neglect this, and let the treasure go, and am instructed to seek elsewhere and otherwise to be pious, to conciliate God and atone for sin, then I am already prepared for all sorts of snares and nets of the devil, and to let myself be led as he pleases; then presently comes someone who preaches to me: ‘If you want to be pious and serve God, then put on a hood, pray daily so many rosaries, burn so many little candles to St. Anna.’  Then I fall in with this like a blind man and everybody’s fool and prisoner, and do everything I am told, so completely that I cannot defend myself from even the most trifling mistake.

If you take away the teaching of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, people will believe and do anything they are told to be accepted by God.  This is a rejection of the gospel.  Therefore we should, following the Apostle Paul’s insistence, clearly preach and firmly believe that we are not justified by works, but through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 3:28, Gal. 2:16, etc.).

Luther, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, p. 68.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

A Second Justification? (Owen)

In volume five of his Works, John Owen wrote extensively about justification by faith alone.  After giving some Bible-based definitions of faith and justification, Owen brought up the Roman Catholic doctrine of double justification.  Rome teaches that a person’s first justification is based on infused grace, faith, and Christ’s work.  Second justification, for Rome, is the effect of first justification, and it is based on good works and love done according to the infused habit of grace. For example, the Canons of the Council of Trent (VI.10) talk about being “further justified” by good works.

Here’s what Owen had to say about two justifications:

This distinction was coined unto no other end but to bring in confusion into the whole doctrine of the gospel. Justification through the free grace of God, by faith in the blood of Christ, is evacuated by it. Sanctification is turned into a justification, and corrupted by making the fruits of it meritorious. The whole nature of evangelical justification, consisting in the gratuitous pardon of sin and the imputation of righteousness, as the apostle expressly affirms, and the declaration of a believing sinner to be righteous thereon, as the word alone signifies, is utterly defeated by it.

Owen said there is a twofold justification in Scripture: One is justification by works – by perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience to God’s law – but this is impossible because all have sinned.  The other is justification by grace through faith in Christ (the topic of Owen’s book).  These two are distinct, like the law and the gospel are distinct.  Then he wrote,

And these ways of justification are contrary, proceeding on terms directly contradictory, and cannot be made consistent with or subservient one to the other. But… the confounding of them both, by mixing them together, is that which is aimed at in this distinction of a first and second justification. But whatever respects it may have, that justification which we have before God, in his sight through Jesus Christ, is but one, and at once full and complete; and this distinction [of two justifications] is a vain and fond invention.

In fact,

This distinction of two justifications, as used and improved by those of the Roman church, leaves us, indeed, no justification at all.

…Wherefore it is evident, that either the first justification overthrows the second, rendering it needless; or the second destroys the first, by taking away what essentially belongs unto it: we must therefore part with the one or the other, for consistent they are not.

Finally, echoing the Westminster Confession of Faith XI.5, Owen mentions that those whom God has justified can never fall from the state of justification:

“It is God that justifieth;” and, therefore, the continuation of our justification is his act also. And this, on his part, depends on the immutability of his counsel; the unchangeableness of the everlasting covenant, which is “ordered in all things, and sure;” the faithfulness of his promises; the efficacy of his grace; his complacency in the propitiation of Christ; with the power of his intercession, and the irrevocable grant of the Holy Ghost unto them that do believe.

There’s more to Owen’s discussion, for sure; these are some parts I highlighted.  It is an outstanding defense of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone – and not at all by any of our works.

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), chapter five.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

All Our Works Excluded (Vos)

  When it comes to being right with God – being declared righteous by God and accepted by him – all our works are completely excluded.  Or, as the Bible says, we are not justified by works, but by faith in Christ (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 3:28, 10:10, etc).  This is the meaning behind these solas: faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to God’s glory alone.  Geerhardus Vos explains justification apart from works in volume three of his dogmatics:

Not only the works that we do in our own strength, or that we do before regeneration, or that we do without the merits of Christ, but all [our] works, of whatever sort, are excluded from justification.

This is so repetitively certain in Scripture that proof is almost superfluous. Galatians 2:16 reads, “… nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by law-works [ἐξ ἔργων νόμου].” In no way is the reference here to works prescribed by one or another specific law, because the article is missing. All law-work as such is excluded from justification. According to Paul, faith and works form an absolute contrast in the matter of justification (Rom 11:6).

This must be maintained against the Roman Catholic teaching about the instrumentality of works in justification, as well as against Pelagians, Rationalists, and Remonstrants. The first two mentioned, the Pelagians and Rationalists, maintain that Scripture excludes only the works of the Jewish law, that is, the ceremonial law, but that the moral law certainly has to be observed by us for justification.

The last, the Remonstrants [the 17th century Arminian group], go one step further, and in place of the moral law in all its severity put a lighter form, the law of the obedience of faith. They speak of a fides obsequiosa [submissive faith] and of an obedientia evangelica [evangelical obedience], which, while in itself not perfect, is accepted by God as perfect.

Vos also summarizes the “causes” of justification.  Notice the work of the triune God in justification:

      The effective cause (causa efficiens) of justification is God, more accurately God the Father, and still more accurately His grace and righteousness. The meritorious cause is the obedience of Christ the Mediator (causa meritoria). The instrumental cause (causa instrumentalis) is faith worked in the heart through the Holy Spirit and then put into action. The final cause (causa finalis) is the glorification of God regarding all His virtues related to justification.

Of course we want God to receive all the glory in everything – especially our redemption.  When we submit to Scripture and acknowledge that God justifies sinners because of Christ’s imputed righteousness received by faith alone, we give God all the glory.  When we admit that even our faith is a gift of God the Holy Spirit, we give God all the glory.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name give glory
(Ps. 115:1 NASB)

Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2014), 143, 151–152.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Far From Rome – Near to God

Far from Rome, Near to God: Testimonies of Fifty Converted Roman Catholic Priests “[I] would say the rosary even more than was required.  I was truly religious, but far from God.”

So writes Cuthbert Dzingirai, a former Roman Catholic priest from Zimbabwe.  Dzingirai wasn’t an average priest.  In fact, at one point he joined one of the strictest orders of priests called the “Order of Friars Minor.”  While in this order, he made three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Church counsels.  Dzingirai said,

“The three vows I had made to my superiors and the Church were always part of my ‘mantra,’ which I repeated over and over each morning as I woke up for meditation.  They became my greatest treasure, part of the important sacramentals which separated me from the laity.  I thought they brought me closer to God.”

When Dzingirai participated in six of the seven Catholic sacraments, he viewed ordination as the highest sacrament since it conveyed the most grace:

“In my heart I boasted that it was added to my other sacraments and vows.  I was, therefore, confident that I could act as God with this sacrament that put my seat next to Christ.  I was a holy man, so I thought.”

After around seven years in the order and as a priest, Dzingirai saw much hypocrisy in the order – specifically breaking the vow of chastity.  Some of his fellow priests would have mistresses and even children, but the superiors didn’t do much about it.  This shook Dzingirai up.  On top of this, he was attracted to a woman and eventually had a child with her.  After he broke his vow of celibacy, he felt deeply guilty even though his superior forgave him.  What did Dzingirai do?

“Day after day I participated more and more vigorously with a penitent heart in morning meditation, the Mass, Friday adoration hour, and prayer before the Monstrance.  What else could I do since I was taught that cleansing myself was my responsibility?  I tried harder and harder.”

Dzingirai was never taught the gospel in the Roman Catholic church; he didn’t know God’s grace and merciful forgiveness in Christ through faith.  He was simply taught to work harder when he sinned.  Finally he ran across a man who spoke out against Rome; this man taught Dzingirai the truths of Scripture and the gospel of grace.

“I felt as though scales were falling from my eyes.  It was as if I were waking up to reality from a deep sleep.  It took me nearly a year to understand the meaning of such verses as Gal. 3:10-11.  I never knew that God could love me and extend grace to me in a state of sin (Rom 5:8).  I never before knew that God could love me and look upon me as ‘just’ before him because of my faith in Christ’s perfect work of atonement while I was in a state of sin.  This was extraordinary – knowing that God justifies not by works that I do, but by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 4:5, 10:10).”

What a great testimony of God’s grace to a sinner trying to earn salvation by prayers, vows, obedience, and holiness!  Dzingirai was trying to work his way to heaven; God stopped him in his sinful tracks and told him that heaven is not earned by works, but by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  This is one of the reasons I will never go to Rome: because Rome has officially declared an anathema upon those who believe in justification by faith alone.  I, like Dzingirai, will stick with Paul: a man is not justified by works, but by faith!

The above edited quotes are found in chapter three of Far from Rome, Near to God.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


Justifying Faith: Not Doing, But Receiving

What is Faith? At its core, justifying faith is not defined by doing, working, performing, or earning.  Paul so very clearly says that a sinner is justified by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28, Gal. 2:16).  Salvation from sin, misery, and death is a divine gift of sovereign grace, not the reward for work done (Rom. 4:1-5).  A sinner is justified by receiving a gift – Christ and all his benefits.  We are justified by faith alone (apart from works) in Christ alone (in “no one” or “nothing else” at all).  J. G. Machen explains this well:

“That is the center of the Christian religion – the absolutely undeserved and sovereign grace of God, saving sinful men by the gift of Christ upon the cross. Condemnation comes by merit; salvation comes only by grace: condemnation is earned by man; salvation is given by God. The fact of the grace of God runs through the New Testament like a golden thread; indeed for it the New Testament exists. It is found in the words which Jesus spoke in the days of His flesh, as in the parables of the servant coming in from the field and of the laborers in the vineyard; it is found more fully set forth after the redeeming work was done, after the Lord had uttered his triumphant “It is finished” upon the cross. Everywhere the basis of the New Testament is the same — the mysterious, incalculable, wondrous, grace of God, “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“The reception of that gift is faith: faith means not doing something but receiving something; it means not the earning of a reward but the acceptance of a gift. A man can never be said to obtain a thing for himself if be obtains it by faith; indeed to say that he obtains it by faith is only another way of saying that he does not obtain it for himself but permits another to obtain it for him. Faith, in other words, is not active but passive; and to say that we are saved by faith is to say that we do not save ourselves but are saved only by the one in whom our faith is reposed; the faith of man presupposes the sovereign grace of God.”

J. G. Machen, What Is Faith?, p. 194-195.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Clouding the Gospel, Confusing God’s People

  There’s a reason why historic Reformed/Presbyterian churches respond so quickly, strongly, and ecclesiastically (i.e. in a churchly manner) to preaching that clouds the gospel by mixing law/works and gospel/grace.  When we hear things like “works are instrumental in justification” or “final justification at the last day” or “the lawful gospel” or “I’m not sure ‘imputation’ is the best way to talk” or “faith alone means being faithful to Christ’s call” and other confusing statements, we investigate because these types of statements bring on a theological fog that so quickly confuses God’s people about the heart of the faith, the gospel.  Concerning this, Martin Luther made the following outstanding observations in his commentary on Galatians 1:6 (I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel… NASB).  By the way, these statements are totally applicable today in light of the Federal Vision and New Perspective(s) on Paul:

Paul complains that it is easy to fall (compare 1 Corinthians 10:12). We, too, find in everyday experience how hard it is for the mind to conceive and retain a sound and steadfast faith. It may take ten years’ labor before a little church is properly ordered; then some lunatic gets in who can do nothing but speak slanderously and spitefully against sincere preachers of the Word, and in one moment he upsets everything. That happened with Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ. He had won the churches of Galatia with great care and labor, and the false apostles, shortly after his departure, overthrew it, as this and other letters prove. So great is the weakness and wretchedness of this present life. We walk among Satan’s snares, and one person with mad ideas may destroy in a short time all that has been built up over many years by many true ministers laboring night and day. We learn this from experience, with great grief; yet we cannot do anything about it.

Since the church is such a soft and tender thing, and so soon overthrown, we must be quick to watch against these people with their mad ideas. When they have given two sermons or have read a few pages of the Holy Scriptures, they reckon they are in control of all learners and teachers and are answerable to no human authority. You can find many such people today, bold and impudent persons who because they have not been tried by temptations have never learned to fear God, nor had any taste or feeling of grace. Because they are empty of the Holy Spirit, they teach what they like best and such things as are plausible and pleasant to the common people. Then the uneducated multitude, longing to hear news, soon joins them. And many others who think themselves well versed in the doctrine of the faith and have been tempted to some extent are seduced by them.

Paul teaches us from his own experience that congregations that are won by great labor are easily and soon upset. We should watch very carefully against the devil’s rangings everywhere, lest he come while we are asleep and sow weeds among the wheat. However watchful and diligent the shepherds may be, the Christian flock is in danger from Satan. Let us therefore watch carefully—first, every one for himself, and second, all teachers, not only for themselves, but also for the whole church, so that we do not enter into temptation.

The above quote is found in Martin Luther,  Galatians, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).

shane lems