How can I be right with God? That’s one of the most important questions we could ever ask. The answer not only reveals what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, but also explains how his impeccable righteousness is given to the ungodly.
Unfortunately, Christians struggle to answer that fundamental question due to the many voices challenging the biblical view of justification today. But if we return to classic treatments of the doctrine, we will find both clarifying relief and also fresh expressions that will equip us to respond to new opposition.
Here are five to kick off your studies.
For the Christian in the Pew and the Pastor in the Pulpit
1. Justification by Faith Alone by John Calvin, edited by Nate Pickowicz
Few reformers were so gifted at communicating the evangelical doctrine of justification as John Calvin was. With memorable prose, scriptural fidelity, and theological acumen, the Institutes of the Christian Religion shed light on the doctrine of justification where previously there had been dark ambiguity. “We define justification as follows: the sinner, received into communion with Christ, is reconciled to God by his grace, while, cleansed by Christ’s blood, he obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with Christ’s righteousness as if it were his own, he stands confident before the heavenly judgment seat” (3.17.8).
Forgiven and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, the sinner no longer had to fear the fires of purgatory, question the certainty of salvation, or attempt to do his or her best to somehow merit grace and remission of sins. Righteousness is a gift, Calvin insisted, given to all who simply trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ rather than their own. Nate Pickowicz has made Calvin’s treatment on justification accessible in a single volume. Here is a book to be read and re-read throughout your Christian life, lest you forget the warmth the robe of Christ’s righteousness gives to those trusting in him alone.
For the College and Seminary Student
2. Faith and Its Evidences by John Owen
This work may be one of the greatest treatments of justification, though you wouldn’t know it by how little it is read and engaged by evangelicals today. Facing challenges from Socinianism and Roman Catholicism, the Puritan John Owen articulates justification with the type of precision that’s so rare among contemporary thinkers. He not only lays down a biblical and theological foundation, but also displays the endless consequences the doctrine has for the Christian life. For this reason I devoted a whole chapter to Owen’s doctrine of justification in Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ (Crossway, 2015), co-authored with Michael Haykin.
3. Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner
Thomas Schreiner summarizes the history of the doctrine, looking at the early church and the writings of several reformers. Then he turns his attention to the Scriptures and walks readers through an examination of the key texts. He discusses whether justification is transformative or forensic, and he introduces readers to some contemporary challenges to the Reformation teaching of sola fide, with particular attention to the New Perspective on Paul. Schreiner’s response to N. T. Wright is worth the price of the book.
Schreiner’s response to N. T. Wright is worth the price of the book.
No one knows the apostle Paul like Schreiner does, which makes him the ideal New Testament scholar to respond to Wright’s reinterpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification.
For the Advanced Student and Scholar
4. Justification (2 vols.), by Michael Horton
In every century since the Reformation, the doctrine of justification has come under fire. But in our century the threats have become legion, sparking theological confusion. For that reason, Michael Horton’s two volumes are a Godsend. He retrieves the historical pedigree of justification and, with exegetical rigor and theological precision, reminds evangelicals why this doctrine still remains the hinge on which the Christian faith turns, as Calvin put it. Here is a work on justification that is as comprehensive in scope as it is faithful to Scripture.
Here is a work on justification that is as comprehensive in scope as it is faithful to Scripture.
Edited by yours truly, I had to put this tome on the list because the scholars who contributed to it have labored hard to provide first-class scholarship from every field. This volume of 26 essays explores the doctrine of justification through the lenses of biblical studies, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology. My hope is that this volume will give both students an entryway into the doctrine of justification no matter what their field of expertise, and also scholars the tools they need to answer the most pressing challenges to the doctrine today and in the future.
Most Importantly . . .
The reformers believed the doctrine of justification is something on which the church either stands or falls. Five hundred years later, history has demonstrated just how right they were. Whether you’re a churchgoer, a pastor, or a scholar yourself, it’s crucial to get justification right. But to do so, you must be prepared.
The most important book you can read is the Bible itself.
While these books will instruct you as interpretive guides, providing you with theological clarity you otherwise would lack, the most important book you can read is the Bible itself. For it is there that God himself reveals his Son’s righteousness as a gift imputed to all those who trust in Christ alone. That is good news not only worth studying, but also celebrating.