Martin Luther described the key doctrine of Justification by Faith as the mark of a standing or a falling church. It remains the key issue separating Protestantism and Roman Catholicism today, and this sermon on the subject, by Mr Brian Magee of Groomsport Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Northern Ireland, first appeared as a series of articles in the Ulster Bulwark
How can a man, a woman, a young person, be right with God? This is the most important question that anyone can ever consider. And today I want us to look at the answer to that question. The answer is contained in the greatest doctrine to be found in the Bible, that of Justification by Faith. Luther called justification 'the article of a standing or falling church'. I would like to add that it is the standing or falling of the individual as well.
If you have no justification by faith, you have no gospel. You have no good news. Justification by faith means that an individual is saved by faith in Christ alone, through the grace of God alone, not by any works or human merit of any kind. If we do not have justification by faith we are pressed into striving to develop a righteousness of our own. To live a life that is sinless and perfect, without once breaking the law, and this before the all seeing eye of a holy God, is to seek to achieve the impossible. It is impossible for a fallen man who loves his sin to turn away from it in his own strength and be as righteous as Jesus Christ. And yet this is what many people think religion is about. Many of the cults and religions of this world are based on seeking to perform good deeds and submitting to a set of rules and regulations to make yourself right with God.
This was the great problem that Luther had. He entered a monastery in an attempt to be right with God but the more he worked, the more his sin confronted him. He went through days of fasting and religious pilgrimages and good works in order to earn the favour of God but it didn't work. At times he would spend six hours a day confessing his sins to the priest. He was virtually killing himself with all the religious duties and rites that he went through. Despite all this he couldn't find peace with God. Then, while meditating on the book of Romans, the penny dropped so to speak. He finally realised that justification comes from God through faith alone. I want to share Luther's own words so that you may grasp the significance of this great doctrine. Luther said: "I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, 'the justice of God,' because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that 'the just shall live by his faith.' Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the 'justice of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven."
Luther came into a new view of God, a new view of his precious Redeemer, and a new view of his standing before God. Gone were the doubt and fears that had plagued him, as he understood what Christ had done and the love of God that sent His only begotten Son to Calvary to die for Martin Luther, to die for those who have faith in the finished work of Christ.
I want to simply break Romans 5:1 into three parts: 1st, Therefore, being justified by faith; 2nd, we have peace with God; 3rd, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 THEREFORE, BEING JUSTIFIED BY FAITH
The first word in our verse "Therefore" is very important because it shows that what we are looking at in v1 is based on what Paul has already been saying in the first four chapters of Romans. And in the first four chapters Paul has been outlining the case for justification by faith. He has shown that everyone of us is in a fallen state, that 'There is none righteous, no not one' (Rom. 3:10) and Paul states that 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God' (3:23). He has also said in Romans 1:18 'For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness'.
You see we stand naked before a holy God with our sin and the deceitfulness of our heart exposed before His omniscient eye. The judgment and the wrath of God rests upon the sinner. And how terrible it would be to fall into the hands of an angry God. This is the situation that each and every one of us is in unless an answer is found. And the answer is not good works or seeking to build a righteousness of our own. Can any of us live a sinless life? Can any of us achieve a righteousness that reaches to the standard that God has set? Of course we can’t. God rejects all such notions. How then are we made right with God. Paul says in 4:5 'But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness'.
Paul had just been saying in 4:4 that if you work it is not by grace. You go to work each week and at the end of the month your employer gives you your salary. Now he does not give you that out of the goodness of his heart. He gives you it because you have earned it. And Paul says in 4:4 'Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt'. In other words, the person who seeks to keep God's law as a means of making himself right with God and build up merit will be paid a wage for what he has done. And what is that wage? Well Paul tells us that 'The wages of sin is death'. No matter how hard you work you will never cease from being a sinner. Whereas the person who doesn't do that but who believes in the salvation offered in Christ and who depends on God's grace and the obedience and death of Christ, his substitute, is justified by faith. Paul tells us that 'the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord'. It is all of grace, why even the faith through which we put our trust in Christ is a gift of God.
And so it is not by our work but by the work of Christ that we are made right. Paul tells us that a righteousness of God is revealed. A righteousness that is not our own. A righteousness that is alien to us. But by faith we can be clothed in this precious righteousness, which is none other than the glorious righteousness of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. The moment a sinner sees this truth and looks to Christ rather than his own efforts he is saved. You see it is not what we are doing but rather what God is doing.
2. WE HAVE PEACE WITH GOD
The first benefit of justification is that we have peace with God. Of course everyone in their right mind wants peace. In our own province we long to have peace and to know for sure that the men of terror have put down their arms.
The frailty of the peace process was shown last September when again we saw rioting on our streets and conflict returning to our land. On the world stage there is a nervous tension when we consider peace because terrorists seem to be able to strike right when we least expect it. We need only think of 9/11 and the suicide bombings in London. However, this is not the peace that Paul is speaking of. It is peace with God. It is a peace that does not fail, that does not break down. And this is the case because it is totally divine, there is no room for human error.
Before justification we were in a state of war with God. We do not enter this world as children of God but as sinners who are hostile towards God. Paul tells us that before the Spirit of God begins to deal with us there is friction, there is animosity between us and God. He says 'The carnal mind is enmity against God'. (Rom. 8:7) In other words our whole way of thinking is set against God. He is not our friend but rather He is our enemy. There is a barrier erected between us and God. In N. Ireland we all know about barricades and no go areas. Well for those who are not justified, who have not placed their faith in Christ, there is a barrier between them and God. A state of war. Sin has erected a division and there is great danger.
Now most people do not comprehend this danger and do not see themselves as enemies of God. At worst they see themselves as in a state of neutrality. Perhaps they do not care one way or the other, but certainly they do not see themselves as opposed to God. However, this is not how God sees things. In fact God sees Himself as an enemy of the unbeliever, and condemns them to hell. Ps 7:11 says 'God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day'. God is a holy God, and He is opposed to sin. This hostility between the individual sinner and God will not cease until the sinner places his or her trust in Jesus Christ.
We live in a society which has been bombarded with the concept that God is love to such an extent that many people view God as some frail grandfather figure, who is incapable of doing anything. Well, that is a completely false notion of what God is really like. Paul in Eph. 5:6 after listing certain sins says 'Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience'. Do not be fooled. God will one day judge sin and if you remain in your sin and refuse the forgiveness offered in the gospel you will be condemned, and it will be a fearful thing to come under the righteous judgment of a holy God. This is why the first benefit of justification is so glorious. To have peace with God. To know that you are forgiven. That you are cleansed and God smiles upon you. That He is your heavenly Father. That you have been brought into the family of God. This is something truly wonderful. If you are called to appear in court with connection to some offence, as soon as a decision has been made neither the judge nor your lawyer will want anything more to do with you. Unless you owe them money. However, in the heavenly court, Jesus Christ is your advocate. He will argue your case. He will bring forward the evidence of His own blood shed for your forgiveness.
And He ever lives to intercede on your behalf. And when the judgment is made and you are declared righteous, that is not the end of the matter. You see you now have peace with God. You are brought into a relationship that is eternal. Into a family union which will never be broken. Into security that can never be breached. John in his Gospel (chapter 10) tells us that a believer is in Christ's hand, and that hand is in the Father's hand. No-one can snatch you out of Christ's hand nor out of the Father's hand. There is no greater security that that.
Tell me, do you have peace with God? You can only have this peace if you are justified by faith. If by grace you have been led to see your need of Christ and have run to Him for salvation, then you can have this wondrous peace. This is a peace that is objective. It is not based on feelings but on the objective declaration of God. And yet this objective peace should give us subjective peace. We should know peace within. The Psalmist says (32:1) 'Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered'. You see, knowing that you are reconciled with God, that you are a child of God and a brother or sister of Jesus Christ brings peace to your heart and a deep assurance to your soul. And yet many people struggle with this concept of assurance. Even some quite famous men of God write of their difficulties in this area. John Bunyan on one occasion when he was taken quite ill began to examine himself. He tells us that he became aware of a great company of sins and transgressions. He says his soul was clogged with guilt and he was robbed of his experience of God's goodness toward him. He writes 'Now was my soul greatly pinched between these two considerations, Live I must not, Die I dare not; now I sunk and fell in my spirit, and was giving up all for lost; but as I was walking up and down in the house, as a man in a most woeful state, that word of God took hold of my heart, ‘Ye are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.'
'Now was I as one awakened out of some troublesome sleep and dream, and listening to this heavenly sentence, I was as if I had heard it thus expounded to me: Sinner, you think that because of sins and infirmities I cannot save thy soul, but behold My Son is by me, and upon Him I look, and not on thee, and will deal with thee according as I am pleased with Him.' This brought peace to his heart. Now he felt the arms of grace and mercy about him. Before, he had been afraid to die but now death held no fears, death held no sting, because he had peace with God. And this is always the case with a child of God who becomes conscious of having a true peace with God.
During the American Civil War a soldier turned to General Stonewall Jackson and said 'General, how is it you can keep so serene and stay so utterly insensible with the storm of shells and bullets raining about your head?' Jackson answered, 'My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time of my death. I do not concern myself with that but to be always ready whenever it may overtake me. That’s the way all men should live, then all men would be equally brave'. General Jackson was a man who knew the peace of God. And knowing that, nothing could trouble his soul. Tell me do you know this peace with God? That the wrath of God has been removed from you. And having this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, are you aware of that knowledge guarding your heart and mind?
3 THROUGH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
We have considered our being justified by faith which brings peace with God. Now we come to the person who makes it all possible, the Lord Jesus Christ. Through his sacrifice and substitution we are made right with God.
Now not everyone likes this concept. Steve Chalke has stated that he does not accept the penal substitution of Christ. In fact he calls it 'cosmic child abuse'. But without penal substitution there can be no real justification. The wrath of God remains and no satisfaction of divine justice has been made. Chalke and others misunderstand what Christ has done. He was not forced into the giving of his life but rather He freely gave it up. Hebrews 9:14 says that Christ 'offered Himself without spot to God'. He voluntarily gave Himself. Now to illustrate this I want us to look at an OT man who is a picture of Christ.
In Romans 4, we are presented with Abraham as an example of faith. And we cannot think of the faith of Abraham without thinking of that incident which tested his faith when he was asked to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. Now usually we concentrate on Abraham when we look at this story, but I want to centre our thoughts on Isaac. Here was a young healthy man. And we know that his father was of a great age because he was 100 when Isaac was born. There was no way that an old man could have forced his young son to do anything he didn't freely submit to. Isaac carried the wood up the mount to the place of sacrifice and he knew full well what was happening. When he asked his father, Abraham simply replied 'God will provide a lamb'. And Abraham prepared the altar and placed the wood in order. Then Abraham bound his son with ropes. There was no arguing, no crying, no attempt to save himself. And though it says that Abraham laid him on the altar I think that Isaac would have co-operated in this and as the old man guided his son Isaac submissively fell onto the wood of the altar. Not only that but, as his father takes out his knife and it glints in the bright sunshine, there is no struggle, no attempt to escape, but total submission. He may even have pushed back his head to lay the vein on his neck open to his father's blade. And he submitted because he knew that his father was carrying out the will of God.
Now, Abraham was stopped from laying a hand on the lad, but that is a picture of the sacrifice of Christ. Jerusalem was built on the same mount and at that very same place God did provide a lamb. John the Baptist when he saw Christ cried out 'Behold the Lamb of God'. And, like Isaac, Jesus took the wood of the cross on his back and carried it to the place of sacrifice. He didn't struggle, he didn't fight, even though he could have called down legions of angels to come to his aid. He submitted totally to the Father's will. He put Himself on the cross. He permitted the nails to be hammered home and did not complain. As Isaiah said 'He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not his mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter'. Our Lord submissively offered Himself up in obedience to the Father's will that He might die the just for the unjust and take upon Himself the full wrath of God. There was no cry for Him of 'Do not lay your hand on the lad' but rather the paying in full the penalty of the sin of His people that through His death they might be set free. This is what Christ has done. He has made right all those who by faith come to the Father through Him. And it must be through Him. We cannot do anything ourselves, we have no righteousness of our own to make us right with God, we must look to an alien righteousness. Now when I use the word 'alien' I am not talking of some science fiction tale. Rather I mean alien, as in not one's own, something that is of a different nature to your own, something from another world. And you see the righteousness we need is divine righteousness. It is a righteousness that is from another world. It is a righteousness that no human being naturally possesses. It is something that comes from outside ourselves.
Last summer, there was a terrible event reported on the news when a young child fell into a hole on a sandy beach and sand caved in around the child and she literally drowned in sand. We shudder at the thought of such a thing and yet that perfectly illustrates our situation.
We are in a pit in which there is no sure ground beneath our feet. The more we try to save ourselves the more we bring dirt down upon our heads. Like quicksand, the more we struggle, the more we will sink. We need someone from outside to come to our aid. We need someone who can stand on firm ground, who has a sure foundation, who has the leverage and power to reach out and pull us out of the danger and out of the mire.
Well that is exactly what Christ can do. In the gospel He reaches out to us and He says 'I can save you. I can bring you out of your situation of dread. I can come to your aid. I have the power, I have the ability'. The Psalmist says (Ps. 40:1-2) 'I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps'.
Like the Psalmist, have you cried out to the Lord in your great need? If someone is in danger, struggling only makes things worse. The only thing you can do is to cry for help. You need one who can embrace you in His loving arms and bring you out of your situation. And by faith you need to cling to Him. You need a Saviour. You need Christ. It is only through Christ alone that we can be saved. The great cries of the Reformation were solo fide (by faith alone), solo Christo (through Christ alone).
He alone can save you. He alone can bring you to safety. He alone can set your feet upon a rock. He alone can give you peace with God. He alone can take away your sin so that you are right with God. This happens when you are justified by faith and see no hope in any but Him, and you place your whole trust in Him by faith.
Are you justified by faith? Has that great transaction taken place where your sin is accounted to Christ's account and His righteousness to yours, and by faith have you taken hold of Christ? Can you stand on the brink of death and say 'death where is thy sting, grave where is thy victory'? If not, then go to Christ. It is only through Him, and faith in Him, that you can ever be right with God.