On Sunday morning at Capitol City, we unpacked the wonderful doctrine of justification by faith alone. Justification by faith is the very heart of the Christian gospel – yet it is often widely misunderstood.
Much of that misunderstanding owes to an old play on words, often repeated, that suggests that justification means that God treats me “just as if I never sinned.” While justification does amount to our complete legal pardon before the judgment of God, while it does mean that God treats us (legally) as if we never sinned, that is only half of justification.
The other half – the often-neglected half – of this wonderful doctrine requires another play on words. Justification means that God treats me “just as if I never sinned” and “just as if I had always obeyed.” God forgives us – imputing his righteous wrath against our sin to Christ, and makes us righteous – imputing the perfect righteousness of Christ to us.
Jerry Bridges illustrates these complementary truths simply but wonderfully in this way:
Once after I had spoken on [justification by faith], a man said to me, “I still don’t understand the difference.” He had already told me he was a self-employed landscape contractor, so I said to him, “Suppose you have been working on a job all day and you come home sweaty and dirty and your clothes all grimy. What do you need before you sit down to dinner?”
He replied, “I need to take a shower and put on clean clothes.”
“How about just putting on clean clothes without taking a shower?”
“No, I would never do that,” he replied.
“Then how about taking a shower and putting your grimy work clothes back on?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that either.”
“So you need to take a shower and put on clean clothes?”
“Yes,” he replied, “that’s what I need to do.”
I said, “That’s what God does to you. He washes you clean in the blood of His Son and clothes you in His perfect righteousness.” He smiled and said, “I get it.”1
1 Jerry Bridges. The Transforming Power of the Gospel (Colorado Spring: NavPress, 2012), 50-51. If you haven’t read anything by Jerry Bridges, you should. He writes simply and accessibly, and he was “gospel centered” before “gospel centered” was cool.