Justification by Faith Alone – 1
The great question that confronts us all is: how can a holy and righteous God ever be reconciled to unholy and unrighteous sinners? How can I ever be put right with God? How can the holy One who inhabits eternity ever be righteously reconciled to me, a judgment-deserving sinner?
by Ian Hamilton
"OUR GREATEST NEED"
"This doctrine is a subject that is causing some controversy within the Christian church, and sadly, within the evangelical Christian church. There are even some suggesting, and perhaps even more than suggesting, that the Reformation doctrine of Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, is the very same doctrine that is now being taught by the Roman Catholic church. And if nothing else, I think, Christian believers need themselves to be reminded afresh just what the Word of God, our only rule of faith, has to teach us concerning this subject. There was a day when you could assume that evangelical Christians understood what the Doctrine of justification was. It was the glory of the evangelical gospel, but no longer can you make that assumption. I think it truth to say that many evangelical Christians know what it means to justify their margins on their computer, but they know nothing of what it means for God to justify the ungodly, by His grace, through the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We are today more computer literate than gospel literate. And that, sadly, within many evangelical churches.
John Calvin called justification the main hinge on which true religion turns. More dramatically, Martin Luther put it like this, "This article of justification by grace alone, through faith alone is the head and cornerstone of the church, which alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves and protects the church. without it the church of God cannot subsist but one hour". And Luther in no sense was over-dramatizing the issue. The doctrine of gratuitous justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ is the very cornerstone of the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Get this wrong and you get everything wrong. Get this wrong and evangelical religion ultimately dies.
The great question that confronts us all is: how can a holy and righteous God ever be reconciled to unholy and unrighteous sinners? How can I ever be put right with God? How can the holy One who inhabits eternity ever be righteously reconciled to me, a judgment-deserving sinner? That really is the issue. And that’s the issue that takes us to the very heart of the revelation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There was a day when the grace of God caused the very pulse beat of believers to quicken. But we live in a day when by and large our thinking about the grace of God has become somewhat commonplace. We sing about it, we talk about it, we preach about it. But would it not be true to say that by and large we have lost the sense of the glory of it and the wonder of it?
In this first introductory address I want to consider but two things with you. First and quite briefly, to reflect with you on what the Bible means by justification, simply to remind you and to remind myself of that most basic of truths. What does the Bible mean when it speaks of God justifying the ungodly? But then secondly, and at a little more length, I want to consider with you why it is that we need this justifying righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
First of all, then, what is justification? The answer that the Bible gives is straight forward, simple and undeniable. In Scripture, to justify means always to declare righteous. Always and in every place it means to declare righteous. It never means to make righteous. Justification is a declaration that God makes – now note these words, for they will be the burden and the substance of our second address – justification is a declaration that God makes according to truth, pronouncing guilty, judgment-deserving sinners righteous in His sight. It is a declaration made by God, but a declaration that He makes according to truth.
I refer to three passages that clearly affirm this: Deuteronomy 25:1, 1 Timothy 3:16 and Luke 18:9-14. In the latter, the publican went home, justified before God, not by an infusion of grace, but by a declaration of grace. The Pharisee who belonged to the covenant community was unjustified.
And you’ll know how the whole history of Israel was the history of covenantal presumption. God’s gracious covenant mercies were intended to lead to repentance. But the whole history of Israel was a history where men and women placed their confidence in covenant privilege and not on the Christ of the covenant.
God is a righteous God, He is a holy God, He will by no means clear the guilty. How is God, then, free to instate guilty, judgment deserving sinners into a right and restored relationship with Himself? If you and I justified the ungodly we would be an abomination in God’s sight. And yet God does justify the ungodly. He does what no man is able to do and is just in so doing, says Paul. ‘For He is just as well as the justifier of them that believe in Jesus Christ’. (see the next address)
The second point, to me, really is the crucial issue that has allowed evangelical Christians to drift so dangerously into a quasi-harmony, many of them, with the doctrines of the church of Rome. It is our failure to understand our desperate need before God that allows us so easily to drift into teaching that can do nothing to justify the ungodly. Turn with me to Romans 3, where the apostle comes to the climax of the argument that he began in chapter 1:18. He seeks to show us our great and pressing need of God’s justifying grace in Jesus Christ. One of the great tragedies in evangelicalism, in at least my own generation, has been the way we have allowed the world around us to infect and invade the church, and to downgrade in the church the seriousness of sin. Sin is the great, great disrupter. But the heart and horror of sin is not what it does to me, not what it does to you, not what it does to my family, not what it does to society, but what it does to God.
You’ll remember how in the 51st Psalm, in David’s great Psalm of penitence, how he pours out his heart, after he has been brought to conviction of sin through the ministry of the prophet Nathan. And David cries out, ‘Against You and You only have I sinned, 0 God"’ And when you first read those words you almost want to stop and think, David, wise up. Look at the disgrace you’ve brought to your family. Look at the dishonour you brought to Bathsheba. Look at the disgrace you have brought to the people of God in the world. The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. And I do believe David, with tears, would have said, "I believe it’s so. But God has brought me to see what the heart and horror of my sin is. It is against God". And it is that great theocentric heart that we have so lost in the evangelical world today. We need afresh to be confronted by God’s Word with the seriousness and wickedness of sin. And this is what Paul does, from Romans 1:18 to 3:20. And thence he comes to the conclusion of his indictment. In Romans 3:9 he concludes, "What shall we say then? Are we any better off? Not at all, "he says. "We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin". From chapter 1:18 Paul has taken us, as it were, into God’s courtroom. It is a courtroom scene. And the whole world stands arraigned before God in the dark. And Paul acts, as it were, as the barrister for the prosecution. And first of all, the whole Gentile world is exposed before God, and the verdict is damning: men are without excuse, says Paul. The heavens declare the glory of God. But men and women hold down the truth in unrighteousness. And he proceeds to show line upon line, that all men are without excuse, no matter who they are or where they have been. They stand before God deserving death. That’s the condition of the Gentile world, says Paul. Condemned before God, without excuse. Because what was clearly known has been revealed. But we hold down the truth in unrighteousness.
In Romans chapter 2 he writes, ‘A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No", he says, "a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit." In chapter 3 Paul comes here to a searing conclusion. It is this, that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. And in the following verses Paul comes to the climax where he shows the total depravity of mankind before God. Here is why we need the justifying righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. "There is none righteous, no not one, none who understands. none who seeks after God No, not one.
And in verses 13-18 you’ll notice Paul gives us an x-ray analysis of every unregenerate individual, from head to foot. He mentions five distinct bodily organs. For he wants, I think, almost in the passing, to show us that sin is concrete.
In verse 17 he deals with the sinner’s mind. "The way of peace they do not know, ever seeking but never finding. "He comes to the damning climax in verse 18, "there is no fear of God before their eyes." For that is the very epitome of sin.
And so Paul concludes, ‘Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God Therefore no one will be justified in God’s sight by observing the law, rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." God is unchangeably righteous. He will by no means clear the guilty. And in ourselves we are bankrupt. We are utterly, utterly destitute before God. Do you see then the utter folly, and the utter futility of trying to be righteous by observing the law? "Through the law, says Paul, "we become conscious of sin". The law is not a ladder to climb. It is a mirror to see yourself in.
Have you seen and felt your need of God’s justifying grace in Jesus Christ? And if you have, have you cried to God for mercy? For He delights to draw near to those who draw near to Him by Jesus Christ. And if you have, how has it affected your life? Justification is not sanctification, but justification inevitably and always issues in a sanctified life. Where there is no sanctification, there has been no justification. Never confuse them. But never divide them. And the great evidence that you and I are truly justified, declared righteous in God’s sight according to truth, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, is that in these poor, poor lives of ours, something of the righteousness of Christ will be seen. Because the great predestinating purpose of God is to conform us to the likeness of His Son. Where justifying grace has come to us in Christ its effect is always a transformed life. It is by their fruits, says Jesus, that you will know them. May God persuade us that our greatest need is to see the bankruptcy of our lives, and to see that God, the holy One, has provided in His Son what we could never provide for ourselves, a righteousness that God can look upon and embrace to His heart, even the righteousness of the God-man Jesus Christ.
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