”But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” Romans 3:21.
For no doubt Abraham was regenerated and led by the Spirit of God at the time when he denied that he was justified by works. Hence he excluded from man’s justification not only works morally good, as they commonly call them, and such as are done by the impulse of nature, but also all those which even the faithful can perform. Again, since this is a definition of the righteousness of faith, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven,” there is no question to be made about this or that kind of work; but the merit of works being abolished, the remission of sins alone is set down as the cause of righteousness.
They think that these two things well agree, — that man is justified by faith through the grace of Christ, — and that he is yet justified by the works, which proceed from spiritual regeneration; for God gratuitously renews us, and we also receive his gift by faith. But Paul takes up a very different principle, — that the consciences of men will never be tranquilized until they recline on the mercy of God alone. Hence, in another place, after having taught us that God is in Christ justifying men, he expresses the manner, — “by not imputing to them their sins.” In like manner, in his Epistle to the Galatians, he puts the law in opposition to faith with regard to justification; for the law promises life to those who do what it commands, (Gal 3:12) and it requires not only the outward performance of works, but also sincere love to God. It hence follows, that in the righteousness of faith, no merit of works is allowed. It then appears evident, that it is but a frivolous sophistry to say, that we are justified in Christ, because we are renewed by the Spirit, inasmuch as we are the members of Christ, — that we are justified by faith, because we are united by faith to the body of Christ, — that we are justified freely, because God finds nothing in us but sin.
But we are in Christ because we are out of ourselves; and justified by faith, because we must recline on the mercy of God alone, and on his gratuitous promises; and freely, because God reconciles us to himself by burying our sins. Nor can this indeed be confined to the commencement of justification, as they dream; for this definition — “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven” — was applicable to David, after he had long exercised himself in the service of God; and Abraham, thirty years after his call, though a remarkable example of holiness, had yet no works for which he could glory before God, and hence his faith in the promise was imputed to him for righteousness; and when Paul teaches us that God justifies men by not imputing their sins, he quotes a passage, which is daily repeated in the Church. Still more, the conscience, by which we are disturbed on the score of works, performs its office, not for one day only, but continues to do so through life. It hence follows that we cannot remain, even to death, in a justified state, except we look to Christ only, in whom God has adopted us, and regards us now as accepted. Hence also is their sophistry confuted, who falsely accuse us of asserting, that according to Scripture we are justified by faith only, while the exclusive word only, is nowhere to be found in Scripture. But if justification depends not either on the law, or on ourselves, why should it not be ascribed to mercy alone? and if it be from mercy only, it is then by faith only.