Justification by Faith Alone

By Christine Johnson, PhD.

Asbury Theological Seminary


Article IX (Articles of Religion) — Of the Justification of Man

We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith, only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.

Article VIII (Confession of Faith) — Reconciliation Through Christ

We believe God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required.

Article IX (Confession of Faith) — Justification and Regeneration

We believe we are never accounted righteous before God through our works or merit, but that penitent sinners are justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

We believe regeneration is the renewal of man in righteousness through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, whereby we are made partakers of the divine nature and experience newness of life. By this new birth the believer becomes reconciled to God and is enabled to serve him with the will and the affection

We believe, although we have experienced regeneration, it is possible to depart from grace and fall into sin; and we may even then, by the grace of God, be renewed in righteousness.

Most people are skeptical of free offers. Experience has taught us that anything that sounds too good to be true usually is, and the promise of a “free” service or gift is often accompanied by a host of hidden costs or obligations. Those who commit themselves to such offers are considered naïve; therefore, we would prefer to turn down a genuinely free product rather than to be taken in by a scam.

Unfortunately, we tend to bring this wary attitude into our relationship with God. We may intellectually assent to the truth that we are reconciled to God by faith in Christ alone, but we exhaust our emotional and spiritual energy attempting to merit God’s love and forgiveness. Instead of receiving the full comfort found within the doctrine of justification and regeneration by faith alone, we find ourselves looking for the hidden agenda. Surely God must require something more of us!


Return of the Prodigal Son, by Christian Rohlfs

Those who are most firmly ensconced within the established religious order have a greater tendency to struggle with the concept of justification and regeneration as a free gift of God’s grace than those who are outside of the church. Like the faithful, older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, there are some who believe their dutiful commitment makes them deserving of the grace they have received. The Pharisees, for example, despised Christ for indiscriminately freely offering salvation to the most notorious sinners. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they complained (Luke 15:2).  Others, like Martin Luther, a loyal son of the church, practiced the most extreme forms of “works righteousness” to earn a sense of acceptance with God. Early in his career, John Wesley also struggled with accepting the idea that one was justified by faith alone. He openly admitted that he had placed his hope of salvation partly on his own works and righteousness. In his journal he recorded, “After we had wandered many years in the new path of salvation by faith and works; about two years ago it pleased God to show us the old way of salvation by faith only.”[1] From that point forward, Wesley stressed the “free gift” of justification. “Justification is the act of God, pardoning our sins, and receiving us again to his favour,” he declared. “This was free in him, because undeserved by us, undeserved, because we had transgressed his law, and could not, nor even can now perfectly fulfil it.”[2]

One would think that the revelation we are “justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” would be eagerly embraced. However, this has hardly been the case. Luther’s proclamation that “the just shall live by faith,” violently disrupted all of continental Christendom. Wesley observed that in nearly every pulpit he proclaimed the message of “free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprised that … I am to preach no more.”[3] The truth that we are made righteous through faith alone has been most readily received by those who acknowledge they are mere sinners in desperate need of God’s grace. Often these are the very people who have been rejected by society, the church, friends, and family. The first person to whom Wesley offered salvation through faith alone was a prisoner under the sentence of death, and from there, Wesley carried the message to the streets and fields. It was a humble beginning to a ministry that swept the nation.

What are we doing with the doctrine of justification by faith alone? Are we treating it like an offer too good to be true? Do we really believe the new birth enables us to serve God in righteousness and truth? Or do we live our day-to-day lives struggling with the same sins and failures – wondering if we will ever earn God’s acceptance? Or perhaps we unconsciously act on the belief that only those who “deserve” salvation are worthy of our efforts. When was the last time that we went out of our way to share the good news of salvation with a person who seemed beyond the reach of the Gospel? Or do we only share our faith with others who are “like us.” The doctrine of justification by faith alone is “very full of comfort” indeed for those who have reached the end of themselves. We can offer a real hope of salvation, transformation and assurance to all who are willing to acknowledge that they are sinners in need of redemption and truly believe that their sins are forgiven through the merits of Christ.

[1] Wesley, Journal 22 June 1740

[2] Wesley, Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained (The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley. Frank Baker, editor in chief Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press,1989), 9:179

[3] Wesley, Journal 14 May 1738

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