ByCraig van Echten
August 29, 2018
Bible reading: Psalm 51
Brothers and sisters,
For a while now we have been looking at the Apostle’s Creed. It is the Creed that summerizes core truths that Christians believe. And we’ve unpacked it in some detail. So now the catechism asks the question ‘so what.’ We always love asking the ‘so what’ question. For we don’t want to learn things for the sake of it. We want to know where our theology hits the road. And rightly so! For theology is immensely practical. And so, question 59 asks: ‘What good does it do you, however, to believe all this.’ In short, ‘what’s the point?’
The answer given is: In Christ I am right with God and heir to life everlasting.
In other words, we are now brought back to the core of it all. The doctrine which is the granddaddy of them all. As Martin Luther said, ‘because if this article stands the church stands, and if this article collapses, the church collapses.’ Or as Calvin put it, ‘the main hinge on which religion turns.’ What is this fundamental truth? What teaching summerizes the core of the gospel? It is justification by faith alone. What does it mean in the Bible to be justified? It means to be declared righteous by God.
Now at first glance that may not sound so special. We’ve heard it so often! We are so accustomed to this truth! But this is something we need to keep on cherishing!
Why is it so precious to be declared righteous by God? Because the Bible’s starting point is that sinners are not right with God. God has created humanity in His image. But, humanity has rebelled against the Almighty God which is no small thing. So many of our family, friends, and work mates think they are okay with God, but are not. For the Bible’s starting point is that sinners are not right with God. Consider the following:
God hates evil doers. Psalm 5:4 says, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evil doers.”
God is pouring out wrath against sinners as He gives them over to their sin. Romans 1:18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men….”
God is holy, holy, holy. In contrast we by nature are dead in sins and transgressions.
On the day of judgment, Jesus will shut the doors of heaven on many people. On the day of judgment He will say to many, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matt. 7:23)
God will exercise full justice. There is no sweeping sin under the carpet. Romans 2:6 “he will render to each one according to his works.”
Can you see why it is so precious to be ‘right with God’? Are you right with God this evening?
Now the particular question we are wrestling with is this: how are we right with God? How does the judge declare us righteous? How are we justified?
Firstly, we are justified by an alien righteousness.
Boys and girls, what does the word alien mean? It can refer to ‘so called’ extra terrestrial beings. They are of course fake news. The word alien can also refer to something that is foreign. Sometimes people from other countries are called foreigners. I want to use this word ‘alien’ to make a very important point. That is: We are justified by an alien righteousness.
Let me speak in terms of clothes. Let’s say you need special white clothes to get into heaven. And let’s pretend these clothes cost billions of dollars. Do you have these clothes? No, you don’t. So we need help from some else, to wear the right clothes to get into heaven.
You see, the bible makes it clear that sinful humanity is not acceptable before God. The Bible is very clear that we can not justify ourselves. We cannot make ourselves good enough. We cannot make ourselves right enough.
This is of course the point of Romans 1-3 isn’t it? Romans 1-3 destroys any sense of self righteousness. It begins by exposing the wickedness of the Gentiles. It then exposes the wickedness of the Jews. And just in case the point was missed, it does one final sweep over all of humanity. And what is the conclusion? Romans 3:10 “There is none righteous, no not one.” This is what we call the bad news. Namely, we cannot front up with the righteousness that we need.
And so we see in the Bible people confessing they are not right. In Psalm 51 David despairs over his depravity. Far from seeing righteousness, he sees transgressions (v1), iniquity (v2), transgressions (v3), sin (v3), sin (v4), evil (v4), iniquity (v5), sin (v5). As a result, David is forced to look outside of himself. And He cries to God, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”
Therefore, we aren’t justified by a righteousness within us. We must look elsewhere. So we must look to a foreign righteousness. One that is outside of us. So, we must look to God’s provision in Christ.
Now this is not rocket science. This is like learning 1+1. But think of some implications. This should ward off the rubbish of finding the god within. Channelling your divine self from deep within is nonsense. The Bible shows we have no righteousness. And neither do we have power within ourselves to make ourselves righteous. So the first thing I highlight is that we are justified by an alien righteousness.
Secondly, we are justified by an imputed righteousness.
Imputation is a bit of an older word. But it is still used today. It’s used in accounting. When you own shares there are such things as imputation credits. More common words in the bible to describe the same concept include credit, count, or reckon.
So, what is the idea that is being conveyed? Maybe it’s a bit like owning a house. When you own a house your name goes on the title. But you know very well that the bank owns a big chuck of your house. However, since your name is on the title you are treated as the owner. When someone asks for the owner of the house you step forward. You don’t ring ANZ! Likewise, our name is on the title of Christ’s righteousness. It belongs to us. Through faith, His righteousness is credited, reckoned, or imputed to you. To put it differently, it describes how God takes the white robes of His Son and places them upon us.
we read in Romans 4:9 “For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.”
We read in Romans 4:6 which says, “….David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.”
Now the key thing to note here is: one is not justified by becoming righteous. This is essentially what the Roman Catholic Church taught. They teach that at baptism justifying grace is infused into your soul. But then this grace can be lost through mortal sin. It can then be restored through the sacrament of penance. Without going into too much detail, it way taught that one becomes righteous. So does one become righteous? Or is righteousness credited to the sinner? The whole sixteenth century Reformation turned on that question. How does one become righteous before God?
The goodnews of the gospel is that we don’t need to become righteous in ourselves to be justified. But, that God credits righteousness to us despite our sin. In effect we become sinner and saint at the same time. The Roman Catholic church said, that’s a legal fiction. It’s nonsense. But it is precisely the goodnews of the gospel. That beggars like you and me can be clothed in the white robes of Christ! And that all that Christ has done is ours through faith!
So all striving ceases. We are freed from hamster wheel religion. Have you seen those little mouse wheels that go around and around. No sooner does the mouse climb one step, there’s another to take! Most religions, including Roman Catholicism teach you must be righteous in yourself to be accepted. And one can achieve this righteousness by certain religious exercises. But of course, that creates a problem. No sooner do you finish your religious exercise, no sooner do you sin and lose your righteous position! This was Martin Luther’s dilemma. He is recorded as saying, ‘I tried as hard as I could to keep the rule.…And yet my conscience kept nagging. It kept telling me “you fell short there” “you were not sorry enough” “you left that sin off your list.”
But what do we sing? “In Christ alone what heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease, my Comforter, my All in All, here in the love of Christ I stand”
Thirdly, we are justified by faith alone.
Aristotle was a famous Greek philosopher. Aristotle distinguished different types of causes. He used the example of the sculptor. What caused the statue? There are several causes. There is the material cause which is block of stone. There is the formal cause which is the blueprint or plan. There is final cause which is the purpose to which it is made. The most important cause is the efficient cause which is the sculptor. Then there’s the instrumental cause which are tools.
So when the Roman Catholic church spoke about the instrumental cause of justification. Or the means by which justification is brought about. They spoke firstly about baptism. And secondly about penance.
The Reformers said no. The instrumental cause is faith. The means by which we grasp the righteousness of Christ is faith.
Romans 10:9 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that god raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Reformed and evangelical faith has always held, ‘all I need to do is accept the gift of God with a believing heart.’
Hence one of the slogans arising from the Reformation was: Sola Fide. This is Latin for ‘by faith alone.’ And you can see that the word alone is not there for decoration. It’s a critical part of the theology. The Catholic church acknowleged that faith was necessary for salvation. It’s was the ‘alone’ part that they would not allow. To put it differently, faith was a necessary condition for justification, but it was not a sufficient condition.
So the moment a sinner reaches for Christ in faith, is the moment that person is justified. Remember the tax collector went home justified. The thief of the cross was admitted to paradise. Being right with God is only ever one prayer away.
Finally, we are justified by the righteousness of Christ. Now as I mentioned faith in the instrument by which we grasp Christ.
But what is the ground of our justification? The ground of our justification is of course Christ.
This is important to clarify. For faith is not what God finds acceptable in us. From this angle faith does not justify. Faith is the instrument to embrace Christ.
So we don’t rest in our faith. We don’t rest in a profession of faith that we made. We don’t rest in knowing this doctrine. We rest in Christ. He is our righteousness. He has lived the perfect life for us. He has died in our place.
So, in conclusion, this is no dry theology. We’ve come back to a doctrine of central importance. We’ve come back to the article by which we stand or fall. Without the righteousness of Christ we have nothing! Without it we stand condemned before the Almighty God. Christ and His finished work is our only hope in life and in death.
‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Your cross I cling; naked, come to You for dress, helpless look to You for grace; stained by sin, to You I cry: wash me Saviour or I die.’