John H. Gerstner



FROM CHAPTER 1:18 to 3:20 of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul seeks to demonstrate the universal sinfulness of men. He shows the wrath of God revealed against the heathen because they would not have God in their thinking. He shows that the nominally religious people of Israel, by their condemning other persons for sins of which they were also guilty, were treasuring up “wrath against the day of wrath.” In the third chapter Paul shows that all have gone astray. “There is none that doeth good.” With the law or without the law, men have sinned. Every mouth is stopped. The whole world is shut up under judgment. Then and then only does the Apostle come back to his theme, saying: “Now the righteousness of God without [apart from] the law is manifested [revealed], being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).

Having shown most plainly that no man can be saved by the works of the law, Paul proceeds to show, just as plainly, that men may be saved by the faith that is in Christ Jesus. Now that he has shown men why they should not trust in themselves, he will show them how suitable it is to trust in Christ. Since their own works only condemn them, he will tell them of One whose works can save them. Futhermore, he says that this is no novel way of salvation. It is the only way of salvation in all ages. Abraham was saved this way, and so was David. In the beginning of chapter four Paul points out that “if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” In verse 5 he gives us a classic statement of justification by faith alone. “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteouness.” Justification is by faith alone without works.

I. What Justification Is

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has well summarized the abundance of biblical data on this great theme: “Justification is an act of God’s grace wherein he pardoneth all our sins and accepteth us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.” Justification has a positive and a negative element. It consists at once in the removal of guilt and the imputation, or granting, of righteousness. It rescues the sinner as a brand from the burning and at the same time gives him a title to Heaven. If it failed to do either of these, it would fail to do anything. For man, as a sinner against God, must have that enormous guilt somehow removed. But, at the same time, if he had the guilt removed, he would still be devoid of positive righteousness and with no title to Heaven and would also be certain to fall again into sin and condemnation. If Christ only cancelled out guilt, He would merely return the sinner to Adam’s original state without Adam’s original perfection of nature. There must be the “double cure.”

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

This epistle has already shown us that men are guilty before God. Their sins have incurred the wrath of God (“the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” — Rom. 1:18), and this wrath is further intensified by every sin that is committed (by your hard and “impenitent heart treasurest up wrath against the day of wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God” — Rom. 2:5). Later, the same epistle tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death refers to eternal death in Hell because it is set in contrast with eternal life. Had Christ Himself not said the same thing? “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). “This,” He said, “is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). Had He not said that like “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14)? Why should the Son of man be lifted up as a vile serpent, the symbol of sin, to become sin, and cry out in His desolation, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) except that, as Paul says, God made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us “that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (II Cor. 5:21, ASV). Christ Himself did not say so much about His death. He was making the sacrifice; He left to others the privilege of explaining it. For two thousand years now the church has been glorying in His cross and exploring its wondrous meaning.

The positive element, the making just or righteous, is really the central aspect of justification, though it is commonly less noticed. But, as we have said, if Christ did not procure our righteousness as well as secure our remission, the latter would have been of no avail to us, for we would still be outside Paradise and exposed to the recurrence of sin and ultimate damnation. God could not bestow righteousness on us, to be sure, without removing our filthy guilt. But, on the other hand, it would have been no use to remove our guilt if He did not bestow a new righteousness on us. This is what the first Adam failed to do. He was never asked to die for the remission of sin, but he was placed on probation to fulfill the law and secure the perpetual favor of God upon all whom he represented. He failed in this. The second Adam, the man Christ Jesus, both washed us from our sins by His blood and clothed us in the white raiment of His righteousness, justified.

In order to do this great thing, Christ had first to be justified Himself so that in His justification those whom He represented might share. This He did. He fulfilled the law perfectly, not for Himself alone but for His people. He was holy and undefiled — a lamb without blemish. He was one who could say, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.” He was the Son in whom the Father was well pleased, made in all points like as we are, but without sin. Therefore God vindicated the second Adam, as we read in I Peter 3:18: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but quickened by the Spirit.” In I Timothy 3:16: “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” Here it is seen that the man Christ Jesus was justified by His own keeping of the law, but in Romans 4:25 we see that this justification was not for Himself alone but representatively for His people: “Who was delivered up for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” So I Timothy tells us that He was raised again for His own justification and Romans 4:25 that He was raised again for our justification. In justification, as in all other works of the Mediator, He does not act as a private person, but as a public one; not for Himself alone, but for all of His own; not for the Head only but for the members of the body as well. So that we are quickened, raised up, and made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. Again in Romans 8:34: “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” So, being justified, being endowed with a title to life as well as a reprieve from death, “we have peace with God, . . . access into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice [triumphantly] in hope of the glory of God.”

That these two elements together constitute justification is shown in Acts 26:18: “that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” Also John 5:24: “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation.”

II. That Justification Is by Faith in Christ

Why is faith the means of justification? Is it a kind of good work? No, for the Bible is very plain in teaching that salvation is not by works of any kind. If it were, we would have whereof to glory. We could not boast that we did this or that or the other thing, but we could glory in our belief. “Nothing in my hands I bring,” we could sing, “except my faith.” No other work could avail, only the work of believing. If faith were a kind of good work, we would be back again at the old heresy of salvation by works; but now it would be the work of faith. Romans 4:5 makes it clear that we are not saved by faith as a good work. For that text says that we are justified while still ungodly in ourselves. God “justified! the ungodly.” So, at the moment of justification we are still ungodly. If we are still ungodly then, our faith cannot be a good work.

But why is faith the means of justification? Simply because it is the action of union with Jesus Christ. Faith is our coming to Him, our trusting Him, our resting in Him. The moment we are united to Him, we are immediately endowed with all that He has secured for us. We are immediately justified before we have done a single good deed, because we are His and He is God’s. Just as a very poor woman is a very poor woman until the very moment that she marries a wealthy man. But at the moment that she becomes his wife, she becomes a wealthy woman. It is by means of her acceptance that she becomes a wealthy woman, but her acceptance does not make her a wealthy woman; it is her husband’s wealth that makes her so. So faith does not justify; Christ justifies. But faith is the act of union with Christ.

A. H. Strong uses the analogy of the coupling. The coupling joins a train of cars to a locomotive. The coupling has no power in itself. It cannot move a single car an inch. All the power is in the locomotive. But the coupling is the link by which the power of the locomotive is transmitted to the cars. Faith has no power in itself; it is not a ground of salvation; it is not a good work. It is merely that by which all the goodness and grace and glory of Christ comes to the sinner,

III. Justification is by Faith Without Works

How emphatically Romans 4:5 states this central truth of the Bible! “But to him THAT WORKETH NOT, but BELIEVETH on him that justifieth the UNGODLY, his FAITH is COUNTED for righteousness.” From this verse we learn that: (a) the justified person is one that worketh not; (b) he believes rather than does; (c) he is ungodly when justified rather than godly or one who has something to his credit; (d) it is his faith, not his deeds, that is the instrument of his justification; and (e) his justification is counted or reckoned to him rather than awarded him on the basis of merit. If it were possible to state the gratuitousness of justification more clearly than this, we doubt if even divine inspiration could find the words. Five separate expressions in one part of a sentence setting forth the absolute freeness of salvation leave no room to doubt that the way to God is wide open. There is nothing standing between the sinner and his God. He has immediate and unimpeded access to the Savior. There is nothing to hinder. No sin can hold him back, because God offers justification to the ungodly. Nothing now stands between the sinner and God but the sinner’s “good works.” Nothing can keep him from Christ but his delusion that he does not need Him — that he has good works of his own that can satisfy God. If men will only be convinced that they have no righteousness that is not as filthy rags; if men will see that there is none that doeth good, no, not one; if men will see that all are shut up under sin — then there will be nothing to prevent their everlasting salvation. All they need is need. All they must have is nothing. All that is required is acknowledged guilt. Only confess your sins. But, alas, sinners cannot part with their “virtues.” They have none that are not imaginary, but they are real to them. So grace becomes unreal. The real grace of God they spurn in order to hold on to the illusory virtues of their own. Their eyes fixed on a mirage, they will not drink real water. They die of thirst with water all about them.

Why do men not accept the gospel? How can they refuse the tender overtures of the gracious Son of God? Why do they even take offense at the cross? Let us consider an analogy. An etiquette book is a very valuable accessory. It is useful on many important occasions. A good one costs considerable money. Who would not be glad to have one, if it were given him? You wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t you be glad to be given such a book? Because it would imply you needed it! That is the reason proud sinners do not come to Christ. Their coming would imply they needed Him. They are too proud and self-righteous in their natural state to admit that!


Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.

Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is taken from his book, Theology for Everyman.

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