Father God, please help us to understand justification by faith clearly in our minds and cherish justification by faith warmly in our hearts. In Jesus' name, Amen.
We're in the middle of a series on the Church of England's 39 articles which is a very good summary of key Christian doctrines. And today we're looking at Article 11, which is all about justification by faith. Please turn to my talk outline in your service sheets – that will help you to follow me. I'm not going to preach on one particular passage today, but I'm going to dip into lots of different parts of Scripture. These will appear on the screens. As you can see from the talk outline, I'm going to help us think about this doctrine by asking four questions. Firstly:
1. Why does the doctrine of 'justification by faith' matter?
Firstly, it matters because of church history. The rediscovery of this doctrine of justification by faith was the fundamental reason why the Protestant Church split away from the Catholic Church in 16th century. The two parties could agree on many things: the Creeds; the Trinity; the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ; but they could not agree on many other crucial issues, particularly the matter of justification. The Protestant reformers preached justification by faith. The Catholic clergy preached justification by faith and the merit of our good works. And because of that there was a deep division. And this deep division endures today – for while the communication lines are more open between the two Churches (particularly after Vatican 2), the doctrinal division remains exactly the same after 450 years. It matters because of church history.
Secondly, it matters because it's taught clearly in Scripture. The clearest example in the Old Testament is in Genesis 15.5-6, we read this:
"And he [God] brought him [Abram] outside and said, "Look towards heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness."
Abram believes God's promises. The Lord justifies him, counts him as a righteous man in status before him. Also, David says in Psalm 32.2, "Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity". He's talking of the blessing it is to be in a position where God doesn't hold your sins on your record against you! In the New Testament there are 39 explicit references to 'justify' or 'justification'. Jesus uses the word in Luke 18 when he tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Paul uses the word 29 times, particularly in Romans 3-5 and Galatians 2-3, where justification by faith is often contrasted with its opposite: justification by works. Justification by faith matters because it's taught clearly in Scripture.
Thirdly, it matters because our eternal destiny depends on it. Let me ask you two questions. Question one: are you certain that if you died tonight you would go to heaven? Yes? No? Maybe? Question two: if you were to die tonight and to stand before Jesus and he were to say to you, 'Why should I let you into my Kingdom?' what would you say? These questions are not theological trivialities. They are a matter of eternal destiny. Heaven or hell. These are questions all of us need answers to. Urgently. And the point is that your answers to these two questions will depend on whether or not you understand the doctrine of justification by faith. Justification by faith matters because our eternal destiny depends on it. So that's why justification by faith matters. Second question:
2. What does 'justification by faith' actually mean?
Here's my go at a definition. I'll give it you all in one go, then we'll do a second lap at a slower pace.
Justification is God's gracious initiative to declare sinners righteous in status before him on account of the perfect life Jesus lived for us and the sacrificial death Jesus died for us.
We receive justification (or we are justified) the moment we believe in Jesus, simply by trusting Jesus alone – our works do not and cannot contribute in any way, therefore all the glory for our justification goes to God alone. OK. Are we ready for the second lap? Follow me as we walk through. Firstly, who does the work of justification?
Justification is God's gracious initiative…
God! It's his initiative, not ours. Next, what does the word 'justification' mean?
…to declare sinners righteous in status before him…
'Justification' is a law court word. Now when we think 'law court' and 'justification', we probably think 'not guilty verdict'. But justification doesn't just mean negatively to be declared not guilty – it also means to be positively declared righteous, accepted, welcomed, perfect in God's eyes. The justified person is in God's good books for good – not righteous in behaviour (none of us will be this side of heaven), but righteous in status before God. So, next, what is the basis of our justification?
…on account of the perfect life Jesus lived for us and the sacrificial death Jesus died for us.
The basis of our righteous status before God is Jesus' merits. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says:
"For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Christ lived a perfect life for us and bore our sin (past, present and future) for us on the Cross. So when we become Christian, we are united to him. Our debts now belong to him and his merits belong to us. As someone so helpfully put it: Christ has lived for the true Christian. Christ has died for him. It's a bit like this… imagine a poor lady. She's lost her job and has no savings to speak of, but the bills of course keep on coming. She takes out a loan, but then can't keep up with the repayments and spirals deeper and deeper into debt. Her situation seems hopeless. But then a generous wealthy man finds her and has compassion on her hopeless situation. As they spend time together, he grows to love her and then a year later they decide to marry. And when they are united in marriage, the situation of this poor lady is transformed. He now owns all of her debts; she now owns all of his riches. That, friends, is exactly what Jesus has done for us spiritually. He owns our debt. We own his riches. Next, when does justification happen?
We receive justification the moment we believe in Jesus…
Genesis 15:6 says:
"And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness."
Justification happens instantly the moment we believe in Jesus Christ, not gradually over a lifetime. And this is one of the two errors in official Roman Catholic teaching on the doctrine of justification. While official Roman Catholic teaching is correct to say that "justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ", it is incorrect on the issue of when our justification is received – and how it is received. Let me quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published by the Vatican. Paragraph 1992 says this:
"Justification… conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy."
So official Roman Catholic teaching presents justification as a gradual process of progressively becoming more holy in character and therefore more acceptable to God. In practice, that is saying that our standing before God is dependent on our performance in the Christian life. But this teaching confuses justification (God declaring us righteous in status) with making us like Christ in character – and the pastoral result is a deep lack of assurance, because how do you know when you're good enough for God? No! We receive justification the moment we believe in Jesus! How then do we receive our justification?
…simply by trusting Jesus alone – our works do not and cannot contribute in any way…
Romans 3:21-22 says this:
"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."
Our justification is received by faith in Jesus, by believing in him. Now faith is not the basis of our justification (we've seen that Jesus' merits are) but faith is the instrument of our justification, the means by which we receive our righteous status. And this is the second error of official Roman Catholic teaching on the doctrine of justification. Let me quote again from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy."
No! It's by faith alone. Not by works. Not by baptism. Not faith and works. Not faith and baptism. Not faith and communion. Not faith and living a good life. It's faith alone in Christ alone. And 'faith' itself is not a work! It's God's gift to us, when he enables us to understand and receive what Jesus did at the Cross. Who gets the glory for our justification?
…therefore all the glory for our justification goes to God alone.
Justification by faith starts with God's initiative, and he executed this amazing plan, so the glory must go to him alone. So that's the meaning of justification. My third question is this:
3. What are some of the objections to the doctrine of 'justification by faith'?
Some say: "It's just a Protestant Reformation doctrine!" As we've seen it's not primarily a Protestant doctrine, but a biblical doctrine. Justification by faith was taught in early church and at the time of the Reformation it was not invented – it was rediscovered. And it's not just a Reformation issue – justification is a timeless issue that has great relevance for today.
Others say: "It's encourages sin! If I know I've already been declared right with God, then I can just do what I want and enjoy sinning – and I'll be forgiven." This is not a new objection! The apostle Paul dealt with this very objection 2000 years ago in Romans 6! But it is still common today. And David will be speaking about this more next week, so come back then!
Others say: "It's a miscarriage of justice!" Indeed, Proverbs 17:15 says:
"He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord."
So isn't justification by faith a cosmic miscarriage of justice? Righteous Jesus punished? The wicked justified? Well, Romans 3:25-26 says the Cross actually shows God's justice:
"in his divine forbearance he [God] had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."
In the Old Testament, believers believed in God's promises and God justified him, but the question could be asked: when is their sin going to be punished? The answer is the Cross! Their sin, along with our sin too, is punished in Christ on the Cross! The Cross shows God's justice. I remember once speaking with a Muslim friend from Pakistan who thought that when he arrived in Paradise, Allah would be merciful and let him in. I asked: "On what basis will Allah let you in?" The reply: "Allah is merciful!" I asked: "Yes, but how can Allah be just and not punish sin? Doesn't that call into question Allah's justice?" And that conversation made it clearer to me than ever how different the one true God is from how Muslims view Allah. While false gods can be inconsistent, the one true God always acts in line with his character.
4. How shall we respond to the doctrine of 'justification by faith'?
We've looked at some objections. Finally, how shall we respond to the doctrine of justification by faith? Once upon a time there were three men: an Italian man, a Frenchman and a Scottish man, and they were sitting around a table, drinking coffee and discussing the doctrine of justification by faith. First to speak, as you might expect, was the Italian man. He exclaimed with great enthusiasm: "I love justification by faith, because it is beautiful! It is the story of how those who are spiritually dead can become spiritually rich beyond their imagination because of Jesus. Wonderful!" The Frenchman paused and responded philosophically: "I love justification by faith, because it is logical! It is a brilliant plan of salvation. God shows how he can justify sinners without compromising his own justice." Then the Scottish man said: "I love justification because it is free! I pay nothing. I receive everything."
How shall we respond to the doctrine of justification by faith? Firstly, believe it yourself! The hardest thing is not to understand this doctrine, but to believe it! It seems too good to be true! But it is true! And it is full of comfort too! It gives joy in the present. Friends, sometimes we feel closer to God, sometimes we feel further away, but our justification is immovable. Whatever we feel, our justification stands. That brings security. It brings joy. It gives us hope for the future. Justification is Jesus' judgement day verdict on us announced in advance. As Romans 5:8-9 says:
"God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God."
As Charles Wesley wrote in the words of a great hymn:
"No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th'eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own"
Justification by faith in Jesus takes away all our anxiety and gives us great assurance when we meet Jesus as Judge. Once I was speaking with a Muslim friend from Iraq. I said to him: "How do you feel about meeting Allah on judgement day?" He answered very honestly: "I feel terrified. I don't know if I have done enough to get into paradise." I said to him: "As a Christian, I'm confident that God will accept me – not because I'm a good person (you're much nicer than I am!) – but because I've believed in Jesus." And one more thing: friends, if we are trusting in Christ, justification by faith also gives us confidence as we face our deaths.
Once I had a summer job helping a tree surgeon and we were doing some work in an old church graveyard in Devon. At one point in the day we paused and looked at the gravestones. One of them said:
'… died, humbly trusting in her Saviour's merits'
That lady had understood justification by faith. But is that it? Is justification just for Christians? No! As we are wonderfully released from anxiety about our own souls, we are then free to exercise concern to the souls of others. Non-religious people need to hear that the Christian message is good news – it's not like the messages of other religions – it's a gift, not a burden! But as we consider this particular doctrine of justification by faith, perhaps we feel a particular burden for sincere religious people.
Perhaps that's you today – you're kind, sincere, moral and upright and keen to practise your religion, but underneath you feel a deep lack of assurance. Let me ask you the question I asked earlier: If you were to die tonight and to stand before Jesus and he were to say to you, 'Why should I let you into my Kingdom?' what would you say? My prayer for you is that you would not say: "Oh! I've been a good person, I've gone to church and I've been a good friend and I've helped others." My prayer is that you would say something like this: "Because I have trusted in you, Jesus – and all you have done for me – that's why you should let me in." But if we are already trusting in Jesus, surely we will tell others about the wonder of justification by faith.
Have a think for a moment about religious people you know: Muslim neighbours, Hindu friends, Buddhist colleagues, churchgoing nominal Christians… Do we have a burden to tell them about Jesus, so they can be justified by faith in him? Do we want them to be ready to meet Jesus as Judge? If so, we will tell them about how they can be accepted by God through Jesus Christ. But this is tough, because human pride kicks very hard against justification by faith.
A few months ago, I received a prayer letter from a couple working as missionaries in Italy. They were running an evangelistic summer camp for children – a mini-version of our holiday club – (except with Italian children and warmer weather!) They recorded the experience of two brothers from a Catholic family and their reaction to hearing teaching about justification by faith on their camp. The elder one said this, with tears and anger in his eyes: "I'm as hard as a brick… I will never accept that I can be justified by faith alone, I want to earn my way to the city of righteousness." It's tragic, isn't it? But what's going on here? It's exactly the same as Paul's experience of evangelising the Jews. In Romans 10:2-3 he writes:
"I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness."
But the question then is this: will we be content to leave them in their ignorance – or will we echo Paul's words in verse 1? "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved." Friends, let's have compassion on these religious people! Let's long for them to be saved! Pray for them too! And keep alert – because maybe God will start using you in answer to your prayers! Let's pray.
Father, please help us to believe this wonderful doctrine of justification by faith and please motivate us to tell others who desperately need to hear it. In Jesus' name, Amen.