Justification by Faith (Romans 1.16-17)

19 Apr

The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday Morning, April 18, 2010

In the early 1500s, a young and successful German law student was caught in a spiritual struggle. The parish church where he had attended as a young child had a beautiful stain glass window with a picture of Jesus on it. Every Sunday morning, the young boy would be captured by that image, an image of Jesus with a frown on his face. Even as he grew up, he never got rid of that image of Jesus frowning upon him. It did not help matters when two of his close friends died very early in life, and this only heightened his fears that one day, possibly very soon, he would stand before this Jesus who was looking down on him with a frown on his face.

So in 1505, Martin left the university and joined a monastery at the young age of 21. He didn’t want to study theology; he wanted to save his soul. Martin gave himself to the plan the monks taught him, a life of devotion to God that he hoped would erase the frown from Jesus’ face. Martin fasted and prayed. He devoted himself to menial acts of servanthood and self denial. He adhered to the sacraments of confession and penance, even confessing the most trivial of sins. Often his superiors would tell him to stop confessing his sins until he had committed some sin worth confessing. He became known as the most pious of all monks. But Martin found no peace for his soul. In his eyes, the frown never left the face of Jesus. One of his mentors tried to help him to see that God was not angry with him. In fact, the wounds of Jesus demonstrate His great love for him. But Martin only saw the frown.

In the monastery, Martin had the opportunity to do something that most people of his day did not get to do: he was able to read the Bible. In the days before the printing press was invented, the monasteries were one of the few places that had a copy of the Scriptures. So, Martin began to read the Bible in earnest. He began to study the book of Romans, and the seventeenth verse of the whole book captured his soul: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith.” That one verse would capture his soul for the rest of his life.

Five years later, Martin was sent to the city of Rome. He was teaching the Bible at the University, but now he was sent to Rome on official business. In Rome, he was surrounded by priests who were less than passionate about their faith. In fact, he went to several church services and the priests in Rome mocked this simple German monk and his simple piety. He felt like the nearer he approached the heart of Rome, the more bad Christians he met. But Martin’s life would be changed in Rome, on a staircase, to be exact.

At this time in history, there was a great deal of interest in religious relics[1], any artifact that might have historical significance in the life and times of Jesus or the apostles.  In the Church of St. John in Rome, there was an ancient, stone staircase believed to have been the actual stairs leading up to Pilate’s house in Jerusalem. And the stairs are still there today. These stairs had been relocated to Rome, and they were called “Holy Stairs” because the feet of Jesus once walked upon them. Pilgrims would come to Rome to climb these stairs on their knees, praying as they went. On certain steps, there were stains believed to have been caused by the blood of Jesus. The worshipper was to kiss those stains while praying. Pilgrims were promised remission of years of punishment in purgatory if they would climb the stairs on their knees, praying all the while.

Martin put his knees on the first stair and began his prayers. But with each ascending stair tread, the verse from Romans was ringing in his head: “The just shall live by faith.”At that moment, Martin realized that he would never wipe away the frown from the face of Jesus through his religious activity or pilgrimages or sacrifices. Unless he put his faith in the righteousness from God and received that righteousness by faith and faith alone, he would never be at peace in his soul. He stopped in the middle of the staircase, stood up, climbed back down to the bottom, and returned to Germany. “The just shall live by faith” became Martin Luther’s life verse.

Over the next eleven years, Martin Luther would hammer out the implications of the just living by faith. He would teach it, preach it, and write it over and over again. The just shall live by faith. The problem was that Luther’s new found love for Romans 1.17 was not welcomed in the church, by any stretch. In fact, Luther’s understanding of justification by faith was in direct opposition to the official teachings of the church. So much so that he was called before the emperor and church leaders to renounce his heretical teachings, which is the image you have on your bulletin art this morning. They put a stack of his books and writings on a table and asked him to retract his teachings that were in conflict with the official church position. Luther replied,

Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith, either to the pope or the councils, because it is clear to me as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.[2]

Church historians call what followed the Protestant Reformation. Up until this moment, there was just one church, one holy catholic church, catholic meaning “universal.” Those who would protest against the official position of the universal, catholic church regarding justification by faith, or the authority of Scripture, or the authority of the pope, or various other issues would be labeled Protestants, meaning, one who protests. In 1517, Martin Luther is credited with kicking off the Reformation by nailing his “95 Thesis” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This was a list of all of his grievances against the catholic church including the selling of indulgences. But there is no doubt, that the greatest gulf between the catholic church and the protestant church centers on the understanding of justification by faith.

Justification is the fancy church word that answers the simple question, “How can I be right with God?” How can a sinner be right, be in good standing with a holy God? Luther, and John Calvin, and other reformers, believed that sinners are saved by grace alone by faith alone. The catholic church rejected that understanding of justification, and continues to reject that basic idea.

I am under no illusion that in the next fifteen minutes I can adequately explain the differences between the Catholic Church and the Protestant church. Many of you have questions about the Catholic Church and what makes Protestant churches different from the Catholic church, and I could talk for years on that question and probably still not get it right. Instead of trying to answer the question of what makes us Protestants different than Catholics, let me try to address a more narrow question, a question that flows out of our text today: “What does it mean that in the gospel a righteousness from God was revealed by faith?”

The catholic church has one understanding of how we receive that righteousness by faith and the protestant church has a different one, and my goal is not to throw stones at the Catholic church, or to criticize their position. My goal is that in examining these two positions, that we can come to a better understanding of what it means to receive the righteousness of God by faith.

Just to clarify a few terms. The word in our text today is “righteousness.” Justification is God’s act of declaring or making a sinner righteous, and those two words are fairly significant: declaring or making. Paul talks about the righteousness from God that is received by faith. The question is, how does God declare or make me righteous?

In 1545, in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, which was the movement of those who protested against the teachings of the church in regards to justification, the catholic church convened the Council of Trent. Several times in church history, the catholic church issued a call for bishops to gather together to discuss important theological issues. At the end of the council, they would issue a ruling on the issue at hand. That written ruling would then become the official position of the church on that particular issue. In 1563, the Council of Trent issued their final ruling on the matter of justification, and it still remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. While it is nigh unto impossible to speak of the official position of the Protestant church since there are hundreds of independent denominations, it is possible to speak of the official position of the Catholic Church because of their centralized unity under the authority of the pope. But by and large, we are able to compare the catholic understanding of justification and the protestant understanding of justification.

And again, I am not doing this to try to criticize the catholic church. My plate is full just keeping Todd in line. I am not ready to take on the catholic church. I am only trying to understand what it means to be justified by faith, to receive a righteousness from God by faith.

The reformer’s understanding of justification, and by reformers we are talking primarily of Martin Luther and John Calvin, was that a righteous person was one who was declared to be free of guilt from a judge. The Sovereign Judge of the Universe imputed, or credited, sinful humans with the righteousness of Christ. This word “imputed” was a very significant word for the reformers. It means to credit, like one would credit my empty bank account with the riches of their bank account. God credited to my account, and account which was empty, He credited to my account the righteousness of Christ. “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5.21). Through the work of Christ, the righteous requirements of the law are fully met in us (Romans 8.4). Millard Erikson put it very clear in his book, Christian Theology, when he wrote,

In the New Testament, justification is the declarative act of God by which on the basis of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death, he pronounces believers to have fulfilled all of the requirements of the law which pertain to them. Justification is a forensic act[3] imputing the righteousness of Christ to the believer; it is not an actual infusing of holiness into the individual. It is a matter of declaring the person righteous, as a judge does in acquitting the accused. It is not a matter of making the person righteous or altering his or her actual spiritual condition. (Erickson, 956).

I do hope you will bear with me this morning, because I am going to try to read some quotes to you this morning and try to explain them. So, in other words, in the reformer’s understanding, we are declared righteous by God because in His favor, He imputes[4] or credits the righteousness of Christ to us. The penalty of sin has been paid so the righteous requirements of the law have been met in us. But we are still the same sinful persons.

But when the Council of Trent issued their final opinion on the matter, they clearly rejected this idea that God credits righteousness to our account through faith. Let me read a few quotes from the Council of Trent and try to explain them to you.

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.[5] (Canon 9)

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema. (Canon 24)

If you are like me, I have a hard time understanding what all these words mean. The Council of Trent was not stating anything new. In fact, the catholic church had always been opposed to the idea that faith alone suffices for justification, and that consequently the observance of the moral law is not necessary either as a prerequisite for obtaining justification or as a means for preserving it.[6]

In trying to make this make sense to me, I had to break it down into a blue collar gospel. The issue of justification boils down to several key questions:

  1. Is justification an event or a process? Does it happen at one moment or is it a process that takes time?
  2. Is justification the same thing as sanctification or are they two separate realities?
  3. Does God declare me righteous or enable me to become righteous? Is my righteousness just a label or is it real?
  4. Can I ever be confident that God sees me as righteous?

The position of the catholic church, and again I am not here to critique them but to gain understanding, is that justification and sanctification are the same process. When we are justified, God gives us sanctifying grace to enable us to become righteous. Or to put it in simple terms, God gives us sanctifying grace to enable us to obey God’s commands and do what God wants us to do so that we actually become righteous and pleasing to God. And when we actually become righteous and pleasing to God, then we are declared righteous by God.

The way that God continues to give us the grace we need to be able to do what He requires of us is through the sacraments. By taking the sacraments of the church, God actually infuses us with His grace to enable us towards good works. The sacraments of the catholic church are baptism, confirmation, communion, confession/penance, marriage, holy orders, and last rights. The sacraments are outward signs of an inward grace that has the power to sanctify, or make one holy. That is why it is so important to partake of the sacraments, so that you continue to get sanctifying grace so that you can do good works and become righteous. And it is these good works that preserve and increase our righteousness before God. While the protestant position is that righteousness is given by God to mankind, the catholic church teaches that God gives sanctifying grace to the one who has been justified so that they can actually become just and holy in the sight of God.

Justification, in the catholic view, says that the essence of justification is not just the forgiveness of sins but also sanctification and renovation of the interior man by means of the voluntary acceptation of sanctifying grace and other supernatural gifts. So, the effects of justification is that real forgiveness of sins can occur because through sanctifying grace, we posses the freedom to be free from sins. Through sanctifying grace, sin is totally blotted out.             In contrast, the protestant position says that we are justified by grace through faith alone. By faith, by believing that Christ died for our sins and accepting the free gift of His righteousness on our behalf, we have been declared righteous by God. Sanctification is the process of being made holy that naturally follows for one who has been justified. We are created for good works, but those good works do not make us justified but are the result of being justified, a position specifically denied by the Council of Trent.[7] The Catholic position says that good works actually preserves and increases our favor with God, and the role of faith is to trust in God to work obedience to the law in our lives.

Another way of thinking about this is whether or not justification is an event or a process. If it is an event, then we are justified, or declared righteous, at the moment we put our faith in Christ’s atoning death. At the moment of faith, we are declared righteous. However, if justification is a process, then we are working to earn justification through the help God’s gives to us in divine grace. The Council of Trent is saying that justification is a process where by God’s grace enables us to merit His favor through our good works. Luther and the other reformers taught that justification was God’s instant pardon for our sins, and all of mankind’s human merit could add nothing to that pardon.

Another way of thinking of justification is in its relationship to sanctification. For Luther, justification happens at the moment of conversion, and sanctification is the process that follows as we become more and more like Christ. For the Catholic church, justification and sanctification is the same process. We are justified as we are being sanctified. If you are not becoming more and more obedient to the commands of God then you are not being justified or declared righteous before God.

Another way of thinking of justification is whether “righteousness” is a label we are given a reality that we merit. In other words, are we declared righteous because God credits it to us or because we earn it by the help of His sanctifying grace? The catholic position is that we are declared righteous because we actually become righteous through the sanctifying grace. The protestant position is that we receive the righteousness of God through faith alone.

After reading the Catholic viewpoint on justification, I was much more sympathetic than I expected to be. It seems to me, and I am by no means a church historian, that one of the concerns of the Council of Trent is that if righteousness is impuned or credited to sinners by faith alone, then what motivation is there to obey the commands of God? If I am righteous in the eyes of God simply because I believe that Jesus died for my sins and have accepted His free gift, then why do I need to worry myself with obeying the commandments or trying to do what God wants me to do? The Council of Trent says very clearly that our confidence in our justification comes by our obedience and love for others and that our just position with God is preserved and increased by our obedience. The danger of the protestant theory of justification is that a person could be declared righteous by God through faith but never follow Christ in obedience. Or to put it another way, the danger of the protestant theory of justification is that one could faith in Jesus as their Savior but never follow Jesus as their Lord.

Let me be clear, I do not agree with the theology of the Council of Trent, obviously, that is why I am a protestant and not a catholic. I do not believe that we are declare righteous by God because we merit that righteousness through our good works. I do not believe that the sacraments impart sanctifying grace to us. I believe that we are declared righteous by God through a faith response to the atoning death in Christ. I believe that happens in the instance of our faith, and that sanctification is the process that follows justification through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit molding us into the image of Christ. And I do believe that we can be secure in God’s declaration of us as righteous, and that security comes from Christ’s work on my behalf and not because of my good works or obedience.

But I will say this, the catholic church is right in that the great danger of the protestant position is that might accept the righteousness of God by faith and never begin the process of sanctification. The catholic church is right in that there will be lots of people who claim Jesus as Savior but not as Lord.

The question for the protestant church is “What does it mean to have faith?” Is faith nothing more than believing Christ died for our sins and accepting this free gift? Is that all that is required to be declared righteous by God? What we are going to find out in the book of Romans is that it is impossible to receive the righteousness of God and to NOT be sanctified in Him.

John Calvin recognized the distinction between justification and sanctification, but he refused to separate them. In other words, the person who is justified will be sanctified. Faith alone justifies, but not the faith which is alone. Whereas we are not justified by works, neither are we justified without works, for in the faith that justifies is that sanctification of life apart from which no one shall see God. Calvin wrote,

We dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them. This alone is of importance: having admitted that faith and good works must cleave together, we still lodge justification in faith, not in works. . . . Because by faith we grasp Christ’s righteousness, by which alone we are reconciled to God. Yet you could not grasp this without at the same time grasping sanctification also” (Institutes, III.16.1).

In other words, it is impossible to separate justification from sanctification, and yet this is exactly the American heretical brand of Christianity. If you don’t believe this to be true, go hang out at a funeral home and listen to the words spoken at a funeral. Have you ever heard of anyone who is not going to heaven at a funeral? Of course not, everyone is going to heaven because we all “believe in God” or “believe in Jesus.” But that is heresy. The confidence that we have in that we have been justified is that we are being sanctified. If you are not being sanctified, then you have no reason to believe that you have been justified. If you cannot see the evidence of sanctification in your life, then you are standing on sentimentalism and not faith.

What is the evidence of sanctification? One who has been justified is no longer content to live in sin (1 John 3.6), embraces the commands of God and they are not a burden to them (1 John 5.3), loves one another (1 John 3.14), loves God (1 John 5.2), and bears the testimony of the indwelling Spirit of God (1 John 4.13). These are the evidences of sanctification, and if they are missing from our lives, then it calls into question whether or not we have been justified by grace through faith or whether we tried to pull a fast one on God.

[1] An object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr.

[2] The quote and the story are from Boice, Romans (1-4), 122-126.

[3] Pertaining to a court of law

[4] Impune means to “credit.” Erickson draws a clear distinction between impune and impart. Impart means to give. See Erickson, 958.

[5] Meaning, cursed, excommunicated, put out.

[6] According to the catholic church, this heresy predated the reformers and had been rejected by the church already. The rulings of the Council of Trent were not stating a new position by the church but putting into words the already held beliefs of the church.

[7] Canon 24:  “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”

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Posted by on April 19, 2010 in Sermons - Romans


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