Understanding Justification by Grace Alone through Faith Alone

Justification by grace alone through faith alone is a core Lutheran belief, but what does this really mean? Breaking this up into three parts makes it easier to understand: the great exchange, justification, and grace alone through faith alone. Read on to explore these concepts.

The Great Exchange

Jesus died for you: He died because you deserved to die, but He died instead because He loves you.

It’s the worst trade ever—and the best. Jesus made Himself nothing so that you would have everything—and completely free of charge. Jesus’ death is an all-atoning sacrifice—everything is paid for. In Christ’s own words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus has done everything necessary to free us from our sin, from our guilt, from our death, and from our deserved punishment.

Everything! There’s nothing left for you to do. Literally, absolutely, nothing.

Theologians have called this “the great exchange.” We give Jesus our sin, and He gives us His righteousness. We give Jesus our death, and He gives us His life. We give Jesus our punishment, and He gives us His blessedness.

Understanding Justification 

For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21

In other words, Jesus not only took away but became—not metaphorically or symbolically but literally became—our sin in order that He could suffer our punishment and give us His righteousness.

This is also what our cornerstone of Lutheran faith—“Justification by grace alone through faith alone”— means. That’s another phrase that’s worth breaking down, whether or not it’s familiar to you.

“Justification” is the process by which we become justified, or made right with and reconciled to God. None of us were right with God because all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). When we are justified, however, the rift between us and God is healed, and the relationship is

By Grace Alone, through Faith Alone

“By grace alone” means that we don’t do the work of justification ourselves. It is a gift! We are not justified by our own works but rather by the work of Jesus dying on the cross to restore us to the Father. We can’t save ourselves, which is why God, out of His infinite mercy, sent His own Son to save us instead.

But how do we receive this gift? “Through faith alone.” Faith isn’t an action that we do—instead, it is worked within our hearts by the Holy Spirit. “Faith” means belief or trust, and the important thing is faith’s object. Everyone has faith in something, and a lot of people have faith in themselves and their own abilities; they think they can justify themselves. Or maybe they think that they have earned salvation, or even deserve God’s forgiveness! This isn’t faith.

Faith is all about Jesus: believing that Jesus’ death is enough, trusting that Jesus has saved you. We can’t do anything to merit or earn this salvation; this gift of salvation is free: you are justified by grace through faith.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 

Ephesians 2:8–9


124629Confessing Jesus: The Heart of Being a Lutheran

Learn more about how to find your identity in Christ in Confessing Jesus: The Heart of Being a Lutheran.

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Blog post adapted from Confessing Jesus, copyright © 2022 Molly Lackey, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. Scripture: ESV®.

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