How important is the doctrine of justification of faith alone? How much should the average Christian understand this doctrine? Jonathan Edwards answers thus:
Indeed I am far from thinking that it is of absolute necessity that persons should understand, and be agreed upon, all the distinctions needful particularly to explain and defend this doctrine [of justification by faith alone], against all cavils and objections (though all Christians should strive after an increase of knowledge; and none should content themselves without some clear and distinct understanding in this point): but that we should believe in the general, according to the clear and abundant revelations of God’s Word, that ’tis none of our own excellency, virtue, or righteousness, that is the ground of our being received from a state of condemnation into a state of acceptance in God’s sight, but only Jesus Christ, and his righteousness, and worthiness, received by faith. This I think to be of great importance, at least in application to ourselves. (Justification by Faith Alone, Yale-Works 19:237)
Later he makes very clear what is at stake in this precious doctrine. Those who deny justification by faith alone do great dishonor to the glory and majesty of God:
It [the denial of justification by faith] diminishes the glory of the grace of God and the Redeemer, and proportionably magnifies man: it makes him something before God, when indeed he is nothing: it makes the goodness and excellency of fallen man to be something, which I have shown are nothing. I have also already shown that ’tis contrary to the truth of God in the threatening of his holy law, to justify the sinner for his virtue. And whether it were contrary to God’s truth or no, it is a scheme of things very unworthy of God, that supposes that God, when about to lift up a poor forlorn malefactor, condemned to eternal misery, for sinning against his majesty, out of his misery, and to make him unspeakably and eternally happy, by bestowing his Son and himself upon him, as it were sets all this to sale, for the price of his virtue and excellency. I know that those that we oppose do acknowledge that the price is very disproportionate to the benefit bestowed; and say that God’s grace is wonderfully manifested in accepting so little virtue, and bestowing so glorious a reward, for such imperfect righteousness. But seeing we are such infinitely sinful and abominable creatures in God’s sight, and by our infinite guilt have brought ourselves into such wretched and deplorable circumstances, and all our righteousness are nothing, and ten thousand times worse than nothing (if God looks upon them as they are in themselves) is it not immensely more worthy of the infinite majesty and glory of God, to deliver and make happy such poor filthy worms, such wretched vagabonds and captives, without any money or price of theirs, or any manner of expectation of any excellency or virtue in them, in any wise to recommend them? Will it not betray a foolish exalting opinion of ourselves, and a mean one of God, to have a thought of offering anything of ours, to recommend us to the favor of being brought from wallowing like filthy swine in the mire of our sins, and from the enmity and misery of devils in the lowest hell, to the state of God’s dear children, in the everlasting arms of his love, in heavenly glory; or to imagine that that is the constitution of God, that we should bring our filthy rags, and offer them to him as the price of this? (Justification by Faith Alone, Yale-Works 19:240-41)
In the end there are six reasons why the doctrine of justification by faith alone is important (see Yale-Works 19:237-41):
- The Bible treats the doctrine as one “of very great importance.”
- The other “scheme” lays a different foundation for man’s salvation.
- In justification by faith has the greatest difference between the covenant of grace and the “first covenant” (the covenant of works made with Adam).
- It is “the main thing” for which fallen and sinful men need revelation. “Something beyond the mere light of nature is necessary to salvation, chiefly on this account.” (19:239)
- “The contrary scheme of justification derogates much from the honor of God, and the Mediator.” (19:240)
- “The opposite scheme does most directly tend to lead men to trust in their own righteousness for justification, which is a thing fatal to the soul.” (19:241)