By Joel R. Beeke
One reason many believers lack assurance of faith is that they lack clarity on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, often confusing it with sanctification. Justification is clearly spelled out in the Word of God in Romans 4:5: ‘To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness’, and in Galatians 2:16, ‘Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.’
Many do not understand that the Lord freely gives to those who ask of Him the results or benefits of all that Christ did on the cross (His passive obedience) and of His life of perfect obedience to the law (His active obedience). By this twofold obedience on behalf of sinners, God’s justice is satisfied. He thus may be just and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
We can do nothing that will make us worthy or fit to receive God’s forgiveness. Nothing is necessary to make us acceptable to God. As poor sinners, we receive the gift of salvation by true faith and are justified; that is, we begin as Christians in a right relationship with the Lord. There is nothing that we can do to make ourselves acceptable to God. God does not justify us because of our sincere sorrow for sin, our good works, or anything else. Justification by faith alone means that all our sins are forgiven only because of what Christ has done.
If we base our justification on some condition that we must fulfill or a particular experience that we must have, we inject a kind of legalism into our justification that destroys its gracious character and robs us of its saving and assuring character. Then our spiritual deficiencies can lead us to spiritual depression, for justification by works, no matter how subtle its form, will demolish assurance. If salvation were by works, we could never do enough of them to be saved! If salvation were by experience, no experience would stand up for long under close scrutiny.
It is true that God expects His justified people to put off their sins and do good works, but only as the fruit of being justified, not as a means to being justified. The Belgic Confession of Faith says that when Christians have received Christ by faith as ‘the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof’ (Art. 29). But we must remember that none of these things can be the ground of our acceptance with God. Judged in themselves, our best works must fall short, for whatever we do is stained with sin. James says that if we are guilty of breaking the law at one point, we are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 3:2).
Thus, no true Christian will ever feel that he is fit to be accepted by God. Even the holiest of men are accepted by God only because the merits of Christ are imputed to them. Once we understand believe that, we are released from bondage. We may then go to God as sinners, knowing that God does not require anything from us as a condition for receiving His grace. We may come as we are, resting completely and exclusively on Christ’s merits.
This view of justification continues to be an important factor in the lives of those who have been assured of their faith. For when they fall into sin, they are reminded that they are unworthy to be accepted by God and that if God were not willing to receive us as sinners for Christ’s sake, there would be no hope for anyone. That is what it means to live out of Christ: to need His forgiving grace every day, to know that there is nothing in us that is acceptable to God, but that He is willing to wash away all our sins for Christ’s sake. Justification by faith alone stands in the foreground of the experience of every child of God who has assurance.
Joel R. Beeke is President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
His book, Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith is available at local Christian bookshops, or online: