Are We Justified by Christ’s Death or by Faith?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, November 11, 2009 at 11:40am
QUERY: Are we justified by Christ’s death, or by our faith in Christ?
ANSWER: Both are involved, but in different ways. Romans 5:9 says we are “justified by his blood,”and Romans 3:28 says that “one is justified by faith.” Justification (equivalent to forgiveness of sins) is God’s declaration that he accepts us as righteous before the law, in the sense that our debt of eternal punishment has been canceled. To be justified means that God, in his role as Judge, looks at us and declares, “NO PENALTY FOR YOU!” See Rom. 8:1.
How is it possible for God to justify us, i.e., to simply set aside the penalty of eternal hell, which in all justice we deserve? Because Jesus died on the cross as our substitute, accepting the penalty of divine wrath in our place. We do not have to pay this penalty, because Jesus has paid it for us. So when God declares, “No penalty for you!”, he is righteous or just in doing so because of the cross (Rom. 3:26). I.e., Jesus’ death on the cross is the BASIS or GROUND for our justification. This is the meaning of Rom. 5:9.
The fact is that Jesus’ atoning death actually paid the penalty for EVERY human being’s sins, but not everyone receives the gracious gift of the cancellation of this debt, i.e., not everyone is justified. Why not? Because God has laid down specific conditions for receiving the gift. One of these conditions is the MEANS by which the gift is received, which is where faith comes in. God gives justification only to those who exercise “faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:25). Faith is the empty hand with which the sinner must reach out and accept the gift. This is what it means to be “justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28 and elsewhere).
To summarize, we are justified by the death of Christ as its BASIS, and we are also justified by faith as the MEANS by which we receive it.
I should also note that there are other conditions for receiving justification besides faith. When the Bible speaks of “justification by faith,” it is specifying that faith is THE MEANS for receiving justification. But the NT also specifies that baptism is the OCCASION for receiving justification in this New Covenant age. “Means” is one kind of condition; “occasion” is another kind of condition. Many make the mistake of equating the concepts of means and conditions.