We live in a world that constantly judges us by how well we perform. From pre-school reports to professional annual reviews, performance assessments are everywhere.
Of course, in many cases it is entirely appropriate to assess performance. Businesses need to perform for their customers, politicians for their constituents, employees for their employers, sportspeople and artists for their fans. Assessing performance can help us make wise decisions about whom to buy from, vote for, employ, watch or listen to. However, this focus on performance can easily become a burden. In our workplaces, the anxiety of being constantly measured and assessed can be a major source of stress and depression. Even worse, the demand for performance can affect our friendships, our relationships, our family life.
Is our relationship with God based on our performance? Does God “assess” us to determine our standing with him?
Last year marked the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the European Reformation. At the time of the Reformation, the medieval Catholic church taught that our standing before God depends in a significant measure on our moral and religious performance. Yes, they said, God gives us grace—but still, he demands performance, and if our performance doesn’t measure up, judgment awaits. The Reformers, however, went back to the Bible and rediscovered an amazing truth: when it comes to God, we are “justified”, not at all by our performance, but only by “faith”. Justification only by faith. Martin Luther saw it as a truth by which the church stands or falls.i Thomas Cranmer hardwired it into the doctrine and prayers of the Church of England.ii Justification only by faith mattered deeply to them.
So what does this amazing truth mean? And does it still matter today, 500 years on?
Justified by faith
To understand justification only by faith, we first need to take a step back to consider some important biblical truths about God.
Firstly, we need to understand that God is our creator. God made the world and he made us. As creator, God has the right to tell us what do to. He has standards of right and wrong. God our creator wants us to measure up to his standards. That’s what being “righteous” means in the Bible: measuring up to God’s standards. But because God is our creator, he is also our judge. The Bible speaks about God assessing us based on our righteousness. This is where the word “justified” comes in. It’s a law-court word. Being “justified” means being declared “righteous” or “innocent”. “Justification” is a declaration by God the judge that we have measured up to his standards.
But we have a massive problem here. We’re not righteous (see e.g. Rom 3:10). We’ve rebelled against God, and rejected his right to rule us. So we don’t measure up. We don’t perform. As it says in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. On the face of it, this is terrible news.
But the Bible tells us that sinners can, in fact, be justified—through Jesus Christ. As it says in Romans 3:24, we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. By rights, of course, we deserve condemnation from God for our sin. But Jesus, the perfectly righteous one, died for our sins, in our place, taking that judgment on himself (Rom 3:25). So through Jesus, we can go free. We can be justified before God! This justification happens, not through our performance, but through faith—which is all about Jesus, not us. That is why God is described as “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
Justified only by faith
We’re justified by faith. But more than that, we’re justified only by faith. That is, we can’t add even a tiny amount of performance (or “works”) into the equation as part of the criteria for justification before God. That’s because justification by faith is completely incompatible with justification by performance. In normal working life, we get rewarded for our performance. But justification by faith doesn’t work that way at all. It’s the opposite: it’s a gift of God’s grace. As Paul says in Romans 4:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Rom 4:4–5)
So our right standing before God is not about deserving things from God. Rather, it’s about a gift—a gift of forgiveness (Rom 4:6–7). That means we are justified only by faith. Our performance has nothing to do with our standing before God. Incredibly, God is, as the Bible says, the God who “justifies the ungodly”. We can’t approach our relationship with God the way we approach our employment. We can’t earn a right standing before God, like we earn wages. Worse than that—if we presume we can earn God’s favour and achieve eternal life as a reward in any way, we’re fundamentally denying God’s gift through Jesus. No—we’re justified only by faith.
Getting faith right
But what is this “faith” by which we are justified? The word “faith” means different things to people today, and many of them are quite different from what the Bible means by the concept.
Some people assume that faith means something like “leaving your brain behind”. But that has very little to do with the Bible’s understanding of faith. In Romans, Paul talks about Abraham as the great pattern of faith. It says Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’” (Rom 4:20–22). Faith, for Paul, isn’t about being anti-intellectual; it just means trusting God’s word. It’s about believing that God will keep his promises. God has promised to forgive us through Jesus’ death for us. He has promised to justify us and not condemn us. He has promised to love us. He has promised to give us eternal life with him forever, through his Son whom he raised from the dead. Faith is trusting that word of God.
Others assume that faith is purely an act of the intellect. This is the kind of problem James was facing as he wrote his letter (Jas 2:17–19). There were people who said they had “faith”, but it was a dead faith that merely involved affirming theological facts. James pointed out that even demons believe theological facts (e.g. “God is one”), and it doesn’t help them. Faith isn’t just about affirming facts or ideas; it means trusting God. If you trust God, you’ll give your life over to him—which must produce results, otherwise it’s not real. Faith produces works. But we need to keep remembering that those works aren’t the basis of our relationship with God—they are the fruit of it.
Sometimes people object to the idea that we are justified only by faith by raising the issue of “incentives”. They ask: If we’re completely forgiven through faith, what incentive do we have to perform? Surely we can just take the free ticket to heaven and then live however we want? But this also is to misunderstand faith completely. In fact, it is to misunderstand God completely! God is not like some distant technocrat or boss dispensing an impersonal system of rewards and punishments to make us behave. And “faith” is not a matter of applying for a random reprieve from God’s system of incentives. No—it’s about having God as our loving heavenly Father, secure in his care. Being justified by faith means we have a whole new life to live as a child of our Father, now and forever. God, through his Son Jesus Christ, is the perfect father. He made us, he forgives us, he loves us, and he wants us to live for him. There’s actually no greater incentive than that.
Faith, then, is not an anti-intellectualism, or a bare intellectualism, or a get out of gaol free card. It is at the core of a relationship with God as our loving Father through Jesus. This is the faith by which we are justified. And this relationship with God gives us the power to live for him, in all circumstances (Rom 5:1–5).
Why it matters
This truth—that we are justified only by faith—really, really matters. It’s about our orientation towards God, at the deepest level. Justification only by faith reminds us that our relationship with God is not about our performance. It’s about admitting that we have sinned, that we have nothing in ourselves to make us worthy before God, and that we need Jesus’ death and resurrection to be forgiven and to live the life that God graciously gives us to live. If we deny this truth, we end up with a Christian life that starts to rely on our moral and religious performance. And that is a terrible road to go down, because it ultimately ends up denying God’s gracious gift to us through Jesus.
Justification only by faith must affect everything about our lives. For example, it affects our prayer. We come to God as dependent children to a loving Father, secure in his care, asking for our needs. It also must affect how we treat each other. In our performance-dominated world, it’s so easy to relate to one another in terms of our work, or our status, or our success, or our marital status, or our property. This makes us afraid to admit our weaknesses to one another, and drives us try to impress each other. Yet justification only by faith shatters this pretence. It reminds us that we are God’s children together—people who sin and fail, yet who are loved, forgiven, and called by our Father to do what is right. That is what defines us, together. And it must change everything.
So performance assessments have nothing to do with our standing before God! We’re forgiven completely by what Jesus has done for us. We are justified only by faith. And that’s a truth that really, really matters. It’s a truth to hold on to with all we’ve got; it’s a truth to live by; and it’s a truth to proclaim to the world.