Justification By Faith Alone, part 1

This is part 1 of a review of chapter 21 of RINE. I do not feel that I can do this in one post, like most of the other chapters. Furthermore, since this touches on what is the single most important doctrine of the Christian faith, we will proceed slowly and cautiously.

Wilson starts the chapter by saying that the Reformers were right, as far as they went. This is not just saying that the Reformers were necessarily limited by their time, since Wilson also says that Rome was wrong on justification (a declaration I certainly appreciate). Wilson wants to say more about justification.

First, he quotes Randy Booth. This quotation leaves me with a question. In the middle of the quotation, Booth says “in another sense we are justified by works…This second sense of justification is a demonstration of the reality, or fact, of the first sense of forensic justification” (pp. 171-172). Then Wilson says “We maintain that we are not justified by our good works, but that we are justified to good works” (pg. 172). My question is this: did Wilson quote Booth to disagree with him or to agree with him? Let me be clear: if by “demonstration” Booth means that the future judgment means that the evidence of our judicial justification by faith alone is our works, then I heartily agree. The demonstrative sense of dikaioun is what James is talking about, whereas the judicial declaration definition is what Paul is referencing. As it is, I agree with Wilson’s statement that we are justified to good works, if by that Wilson means that our justification always results in good works, which I think he does mean.

I further agree with Wilson when he says that good works are the fruit of the tree, not the cause of the tree (pg. 172). However, I am not sure that I would say that good works are the ground of assurance of salvation.  I believe that election, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the inward evidence of grace, the means of grace, and the promises of God are the grounds of our assurance (see WCF 18.2). However, the confession states explicitly that the duties of obedience are the proper fruits of this assurance (18.3). As Wilson has clearly pointed out, fruit cannot be ground. I do not believe that our good works are the ground of our assurance, but are rather the fruit of our assurance. After all, all my good works are inevitably tainted with sin (of course, an unbeliever cannot ever have anything like good works). Even our works need to be justified by Christ’s atoning work.  



  1. rjs1 said,

    January 29, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    You say “I believe that election, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the inward evidence of grace, the means of grace, and the promises of God are the grounds of our assurance”.

    I say: Well put!

  2. Joe Brancaleone said,

    January 29, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    I think the high points in the book of Judges provide a redemptive historical argument in favor of your point — how good works are the fruit of our assurance, not the ground of our assurance. When God raised up a righteous judge who both judged wisely and confidently confronted the enemies of Israel, the people had assurance anew. Looking to that judge for leadership they were provoked to press on to victory, and that in turn inspired them unto good works. In that context, good works meant turning from spiritual compromise and peace treaties with the Canaanites, and fighting bravely in battle to maintain the inheritance.

    So we too, looking to our righteous Judge and Savior, we witness his victory in battle, his deliverance of us from the hands of our enemies, and his wisdom in ruling. And through faith we cannot but gain assurance which in turn bears the fruit of good works, to fight bravely against besetting sin and so forth.

    Now the question is, do the presence of the fruit of good works in turn build up our assurance even more? I would say yes, though in a secondary way, never to be elevated to a primary way (grounds).

  3. January 29, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    I have always had a hard time with the idea that there is a “threefold method of assurance” (the promises, our good works, and the testimony of the Spirit).

    This (very common) way of looking at it seems to create all sorts of problems. For example, it divorces the Spirit from the Word, as if we could gain assurance either by the divine promises or by the testimony of the Spirit.

    I would prefer to say that we receive assurance by the testimony of the Spirit which, biblically understood, means the Spirit’s appeal to evidence to substantiate the genuineness of our faith.

    This witness of the Spirit takes the form of the direct act of faith (i.e., looking to the promise of the gospel) and then, secondarily, the reflex act of faith (i.e., seeing the Spirit’s handiwork in our lives).

    But neither of these can take place without the witness of the Spirit.

  4. SamChevre said,

    January 29, 2008 at 1:34 pm


    Would you say that fruits of the Spirit are the the grounds of other’s assurance of our salvation?

  5. Jeff Cagle said,

    January 29, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    However, I am not sure that I would say that good works are the ground of assurance of salvation. I believe that election, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the inward evidence of grace, the means of grace, and the promises of God are the grounds of our assurance (see WCF 18.2).

    I wonder whether the issue is ambiguity in the term “ground.” If ground means “that which causes me to be assured”, then I agree with your claim. If ground means “that which epistemologically justifies my assurance”, then the three-fold method is Scriptural — how do we know that we have come to love Him? That we obey his commands. Etc.


  6. dec said,

    January 29, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    good works are the ground of assurance

    This could only be true if I were perfect in my good works. Otherwise, I would have more assurance on good days and less on bad.

    If, by subjective and comparative means, I calculate that I am “pretty good” at performing good works–at least better than I used to be– then I would have “pretty good” assurance–at least better than I used to have.

    If I manage to be objective in comparing my good works with Scripture, then I would not be assured at all.

  7. rjs1 said,

    January 30, 2008 at 7:06 am


    But that is part of the point, if we say we have faith but have no good works then we cannot be assured that we have true saving faith. What we are talking about are the marks of grace. Those marks are an evidence of justification and some are external and others internal.

    The Westminster Larger Catechism:

    Question 81: Are all true believers at all times assured of their present being in the estate of grace, and that they shall be saved?
    Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it; and, after the enjoyment thereof, may have it weakened and intermitted, through manifold distempers, sins, temptations, and desertions; yet are they never left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God as keeps them from sinking into utter despair.

    Try also:


  8. greenbaggins said,

    January 30, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Sam, I would cautiously agree with your way of putting it. I think that the term “assurance” usually applies to a believer’s own sense of certainty about salvation, not primarily about someone else’s opinion of our salvation. But certainly, whatever “judgment” (and by that word I do not mean judging, but simply one’s assessment) I may have about someone else’s salvation can only really be based on that person’s profession of faith and/or fruit (I say “or” because oftentimes children can show fruit without necessarily being able to articulate their faith fully).

    Jeff, I’m not sure that one can separate the epistemological justification of our assurance from that which causes us to have assurance. The passage you are alluding to does not really refer to God’s love for us, but for ours to Him. I would certainly say this, that the lack of works forbids anyone from having assurance of salvation. However, works, while being a sine qua non, are not the cause of assurance, but rather the result. So the argument for assurance in relation to works goes like this: assurance always *results* in works. If no works, then no assurance. But the relationship only goes one way. It is not a two-way street. Hope this is clear.

  9. Jeff Cagle said,

    January 30, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Jeff, I’m not sure that one can separate the epistemological justification of our assurance from that which causes us to have assurance. The passage you are alluding to does not really refer to God’s love for us, but for ours to Him.

    Hm. We might be talking past one another. 1 John 2.3-6:

    We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

    This seems fairly clear in both directions: both our obedience and our disobedience furnish evidence for our assurance or lack thereof. No?

    What I had in mind was this: the Word, the internal witness of the Spirit, and the promises of God are that which cause me to trust that I am in Christ. At the same time, if I look for confirmation that my belief is genuine and not false, then John (both gospel and epistle) ask me to examine my own beliefs (1 John 2.24) and my works (above and also 1 John 4.7ff).

    At the same time, I agree that the promises of God have a dual function here: they both cause assurance and also are the epistemological grounds for assurance.

    But election cannot be an epistemological grounds for assurance; I don’t have epistemological access to the Book of Life (which is why I need assurance!).

    And my works cannot be a cause of my assurance for obvious reasons.

    So I think the two, cause and epistemological grounds, are separable. Perhaps I’m missing something.

    Then there’s the Confession:

    yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed. — WCoF 18.1

    I’m aligning the passages above with the phrase “endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him.”


  10. greenbaggins said,

    January 30, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Jeff, on the matter of election grounding assurance, it is the position of the WCF that election most certainly does relate to assurance. See WCF 3.8 where this is explicitly laid out. I may not be able to determine whether or not someone *else* is elect, but I can most definitely know whether *I* am elect. We may “be assured of (our) eternal election” (ibid). I believe that this is what is meant in 2 Peter 1:10 (the proof-text for the above). This is proven by the phrase “you shall never fall.” Obviously, our diligence does not create more certainty in the mind of God about our election. But it does indeed factor into our certainty about our own election.

    Works are posterior evidence of salvation. That’s probably about as clear as I can make it. But since we know that our best works are imperfect, and that God demands perfection, even our works must be cleansed and justified. See comment 6 for this.

  11. Jeff Cagle said,

    January 30, 2008 at 11:44 am

    We may “be assured of (our) eternal election” (ibid).

    Right, but that’s not circular reasoning. If my assurance is the ground for knowing that I’m elect, then my election can’t be the ground for having assurance?!

    I think I’ll stop now. :)


  12. greenbaggins said,

    January 30, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I think I would phrase it this way: election grounds assurance, not vice versa. That would probably do the job in avoiding circularity.

  13. February 6, 2008 at 11:53 am

    […] February 6, 2008 at 11:53 am (Federal Vision) Continuing on in chapter 21 of RINE (first part here). […]

  14. Ron Smith said,

    February 9, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    WCF XVI.II. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance*, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

    * The scripture proof used is the same Jeff Cagle cited from 1 John 2.

  15. March 20, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    This post may be too old to warrant a response, I am looking to ask some people a question. First, I believe in the concept of JBFA; and I understand it. I have a question about the use of the word “alone” though. To be clear, I do not have a problem with the doctrine once it is articulated and explained. I think ‘alone’ is implicit in Paul.

    But Due to the language of Scripture in James which says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” it seems that the doctrine described as “justification by faith alone,” is thus, at best, an irresponsible formulation. When the Scripture uses the language of being justified by faith alone, it expressly says, we are not justified by faith alone, so to then formulate a dogma that expressly says we are justified by faith alone, is a bit disrespectful (maybe that is not the right word; insubordinate). To clarify, once the reformed doctrine is explained, the meaning of the doctrine can be shown to be consistent with Scripture. Nevertheless, if one is to be truly under the authority of the Scriptures, it seems to this writer, that a little more tact should have been used to avoid unnecessary confusion. True, the reformed formulation was a good contrast from Roman Catholic theology. If the goal was to distinguish between our view and the Roman Catholic view, then yes the formula was a success. However, the formulation should have been more than that if it is a doctrine that touches the very heart of the gospel, because, the reformed formulation was not something that was laid out with due concern to adhere to the language of Scripture. It seems to this writer that the doctrine should have been termed, “the doctrine of Justification by faith apart from works of the law.” In which case, there would be a deeper respect paid to the scriptural language used in Paul in addition to a deeper sensitivity to the language used in James as well. Paul’s emphasis being that justification is something that decisively takes place before good works are produced. James’s point being, that such justification necessarily entails the subsequent production of good works. If this brings us closer to the Roman Catholic formulation, then so be it. Our goal is to adhere to the Scriptures as best we can; and that should be what distinguishes us from Rome.

    And to be clear, again, I do believe that James is using Justification in a slightly different sense that Paul is. But if that is true, then are the Reformers saying “Justification (in Paul) is by faith alone,” or are they saying “Justification (in Paul and James) is by faith alone.” Because, in James at least, Justification seems to used slightly differently than it is by Paul.

  16. greenbaggins said,

    March 23, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    I’m not sure how you can say that you believe in JBFA, and then in the next breath call it “an irresponsible formulation.” Paul and James are using the term “justification” in different senses. James is NOT talking about the forensic declaration that we are not guilty. Therefore, there is nothing irresponsible whatsoever about saying JBFA. When James says that we are not justified by faith alone, he is saying that our faith is not demonstrated to be genuine by faith alone. It is the demonstrative use of the term “dikaioo” as used in the phrase “wisdom is justified by her children.” The forensic, declarative sense is used by Paul.

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