Is justification the heart of the gospel?

Michael Pahl has an interesting post concering this question. I have struggled with this. Lest you think I deny justification, let me clarify that I do not. I affirm that we are justified by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ and that this justification is completely outside of us.

I still struggle with this question: is justification the heart of the gospel? Do we really want to say that justification=gospel? I think Michael provides some very important questions to think about in regard to this issue.

8 thoughts on “Is justification the heart of the gospel?”

  1. Yes, I think it’s exegetically impossible to define the gospel as only justification by faith. The gospel is much broader than that! Indeed, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is clearly the gospel! But one could still preach a sermon on justification and it would be “preaching the gospel”. But I’d like to think I can preach on sanctification and still be “preaching the gospel”.
    Christ saves us from the consequences of our sins and the power of our sins too.

  2. Yes, I think you are right, but I get increasingly concerned about some of the rhetoric I hear that equates justification with the gospel. At one point I was afraid even to mention the idea that it is not in some Reformed circles.

  3. I think the key is the word “heart” – does it mean central? Which is what your question is…

    If you believe that the real problem is God’s wrath – then we have to avoid that! And we must be justified…

    Sinclair Ferguson preached at the 2005 PCA GA using Romans 8:32 – calling it the heart of the gospel… Yes the gospel is more than “just” justification but if the real problem isn’t solved then it offers us nothing… which I think the verse addresses (both the problem and the benefits!)

    Thank God for Jesus! Romans 8:32!!

  4. Hey James,

    Yes, justification is at the “heart of the gospel!” The first main turning point in the book of Romans (ch 3b) has to do with the doctrine of justification by faith alone because of Christ alone apart from any and all works of the law. The central heresy Paul identified in the book of Galatians had to do with a distortion of the doctrine of justification. The Judaizers taught that whoever adds anything (even the single work of circumcision) to justification by faith alone is damned for turning away from the gospel of pure grace (Gal 1:8-9).

    In saying that justification is at the heart of the gospel, I’m not suggesting that justification = the gospel, or that the gospel = justification, since the gospel is far more than justification. However, it is certainly not less.

    There are three over-arching categories stretching across Scripture’s story line.

    1. God’s sovereign rule. As King, God’s domain involves both the law (cow) and the gospel (cor/cog) and extends from eternity to eternity.

    2. The law. The law as a reflection of God’s own inflexible and perfect purity requires perfect obedience for life and promises death to any moral agent who sins against it. There is “grace” in the law inasmuch as God created image bearers in the first place, established the law covenant in the garden, and revealed its requirements to Adam. But, there is no redemptive grace because there is no provision or promise of redemption for sinners in the law covenant.

    3. The gospel. The good news of Scripture always involves redemption from sin and misery. Thus, there was no “gospel” to Adam before the fall. The gospel is that the Father sent Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to take on a human nature, to live, to die, and to rise again in order to redeem the elect and to restore creation to its pre-fall state such that it becomes nothing but blessing to the elect once again. This gospel is not only an announcement or revelation of such facts and unconditional promises, but it is also a conditional promise declaring that whoever believes in Christ for redemption from sin and misery is by that faith alone joined to Christ and thereby justified (given the ownership/right to eternal life by faith alone) and sanctified (given the experience/enjoyment of eternal life through faithful good works) for the glory of God alone.

    James, on the basis of Galatians 1:8-9, and chs 2, 3, 4, I don’t believe that anyone who thinks that his own good works form any part of the basis of his justification understands the biblical gospel and I believe that such a person’s soul is in jeopardy. Therefore, while I believe that a person may articulate a doctrine of “justification by works” and yet actually rely in some part on Christ alone for his justification, anyone who fails altogether to rest in Jesus alone for his righteous status before God is an unbeliever and will not enter into heaven. Thus, an experimential belief in JBFA is indispensible for salvation and those who from their very hearts reject the doctrine altogether will never enter into the rest Christ has prepared for those who belong to him. So, I would say that JBFA is one aspect of the heart of the gospel since the failure to embrace from our very souls will result in damnation (Galatians 1:8-9).

    Love and grace,

  5. James, I would define the “heart” of the gospel as (1) that which is necessary to the gospel’s life and (2) that which, if removed, kills the gospel.

    Here is a question for you. Would you say that a person could understand and deny the doctrine of JBFA and yet still believe the true gospel?

  6. I would have to have more clarification on the question. I want to make sure we are not talking about the “normal” Christians sitting in the pew who do not understand justificaiton but basically believe that they are sinners, Jesus loves them and died for them and they trust him. I will maintain a very simplistic view of the gospel on that level.

    Another clarification: if by JBFA you mean the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, then I would not agree with the definition of JBFA. I think someone can believe the gospel without affirming the IAO.

    So tell me how much you are putting in the doctrine of justification. That, in my opinion, is part of the issue. If by JBFA we are describing the whole complex doctrine and not a simple affirmation of forgiveness and righteousness, then I would have some concerns.


  7. A person who believes in JBFA rests *only* in Christ for his righteous standing before God. It is someone who from the heart looks away from himself and outside of himself toward Christ and his objective historical work as the legal cause, ground, and reason God justifies him and adopts him.

    And by putting JBFA at the heart of the gospel, I mean that the true gospel message never declares that a person’s own good works form any part of the basis of God’s justification of an individual and that any message that teaches that a person’s own works are part of the cause, basis, ground, or reason God justifies people is a heretical false gospel (Galatians).

    Do you agree?

  8. I must admit that I myself have come to realize that justification by faith is not the heart of the gospel as so many of the Reformed tradition would have us believe. While justification definitely is a predominate theme in two of Paul’s letters (I don’t think it’s the heart of Paul’s theology either), it definitely doesn’t mean it is the central message of his gospel. I came to this conclusion when I was reading the opening of the letter to the Romans, “the gospel of God…concerning his Son.” The heart of the gospel is simply Jesus Christ, not our justification. In fact, in my view, anything that equates the gospel with a system of how humans get saved totally misses Paul’s points.

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