As I was picking up a free calendar from a student activities volunteer, I was asked, “Do you believe in parties?” My response in my sleep-deprived state was, “Well… I think they might exist?” which probably wasn’t the answer they were looking for.
Just like how I misunderstood the volunteer, many people have trouble understanding what Christians are trying to say when they talk about being saved by believing in Jesus. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Is it just believing that Jesus exists? When we hear common Christian jargon like “you have been justified by faith alone,” do you ever wonder what it means to “be justified?”
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
In Luke 10:25-27, Jesus, like many of us, once had the unfortunate experience of meeting a lawyer. Have a read of Jesus’ encounter with this person. Contrary to how this story is traditionally taught, the main lesson of the parable isn’t about giving money to poor people you don’t know: it’s Jesus explaining how ‘righteous’ people, and especially this lawyer, couldn’t meet God’s standards.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
For the lawyer, if ‘neighbour’ was defined narrowly enough, then he would have had a chance of meeting the demands of the Law, or at least the part where it says to “love your neighbour as yourself”. As much as the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example of a charitable person, Jesus’ purpose of telling it was actually to teach the lawyer (who was “desiring to justify himself”) that he wasn’t good enough to inherit eternal life.
Unfortunately, the closest most of us will ever get to acting like the Good Samaritan is showing mercy to a relative or someone we found favour with. Because of this, we have fallen short of Jesus’ standard by not loving our neighbours as ourselves.
But there is good news; there is someone who gave everything they had for the sake of a stranger. After Jesus lived a perfect life, he gave his life up for sinners so that instead of us taking the punishment, he would take it by dying in our place.
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 Cor 5:21)
It’s like a swap. We were the sinful ones who were always self-centered with our thoughts and actions, while Jesus is the sinless one who gave everything up to save sinners. He took the punishment we deserved at the cross, and we inherited his righteous standing before God.
The good news of the Bible is that Jesus didn’t stay dead. And if we’re justified before God, all of us will be raised back to life with the Lord Jesus, just like how he rose on the third day after his death.
Indulgences: The Purchasing of Forgiveness
In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther fought hard over the issue of how people could be justified or made right before God. What they discovered from the Bible was vastly different from what all the people within Catholicism were learning.
The Roman Catholic Church was selling pieces of paper called ‘indulgences’, authorised by the Pope, which meant that you could purchase the righteousness of Jesus and martyrs. Rome defined it like this:
“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” 
However, the apostle Paul teaches in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Being justified and having our sins forgiven through the atoning work of Christ was always meant to be freely given on the basis that we place our trust in him.
So if you ever encounter someone who tries to sell you salvation, don’t buy into the scam – forgiveness has already been bought by the blood of Christ, the Saviour, the unblemished lamb, and this remission of sins is given freely and abundantly to all who are truly repentant of their sin and turn to trust in him.
Faith and Works
The Catholic Church later gave up their indulgences – but they still didn’t get it quite right. While the Reformers held the view that sinners are justified by true saving faith to which faith is the vehicle for producing good works, the Roman Catholics believe that faith and the performance of good works are necessary to be become justified.
In the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Canon xi on justification states that:
If any one shall say, that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, by which we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. 
(“anathema” means “denounced and excommunicated”)
But the Reformers were convicted of their view of salvation from the view of the New Testament authors themselves, who taught a view that is contrary to what the Roman Catholics confess:
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
According to Paul, there are no good works that we can do that will make us right with God – we can completely rely on what Jesus has done to be justified.
Assurance of Faith
Because our righteous standing before God doesn’t depend on how good our works are or how much money we are able to fork out of our wallets to purchase salvation, we don’t have to feel anxious or fearful that we might lose our right standing with God when we do something wrong before His eyes.
Instead, we can always look back to the cross where Jesus died in our place for our sin. We are right before God, because we trust that Jesus died in our place for all our sins – that is the only way that people can be made right with God.
When Jesus comes for the final judgement, we can be sure that we will have eternal life with him because we are justified by faith alone.
 – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed; Libreria Editrice Vaticana; 2012 <http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P4G.HTM>
 – Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Buckley, <https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Canons_and_Decrees_of_the_Council_of_Trent_Buckley.djvu/75>