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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The biblical gospel of justification
Text:LD 23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 77

Hymn 28:1-4

Hymn 28:5-7

Hymn 1

Psalm 150

Scripture reading: Philippians 3

Catechism lesson: Lord's Day 23

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Every two years, Ligonier Ministries does a survey of theological beliefs amongst Americans.  The survey now also includes the UK.  One of the questions recently asked was whether people agree or disagree with this statement (listen carefully):  “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of faith in Jesus Christ.”  Would you agree or disagree with that?   “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of faith in Jesus Christ.”  In the United States, 91% of those who identify as evangelicals either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed.  In the UK, it was a bit lower:  69%.  That statement “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of faith in Jesus Christ” is biblical – Romans 4:28 says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

This afternoon is a good opportunity for us to consider whether we have a firm grasp on the biblical doctrine of justification.  Because this doctrine is so crucially important, it’s good that we’re constantly reminded about it.  This is one of the benefits of regularly preaching through the Catechism.  Lord’s Day 23 deals explicitly with this vital subject.

To begin with, we need to briefly consider the definition of justification.  At its heart, justification is about how a person is right with God.  The picture here is of a courtroom.  God is the judge.  Justification basically means that the judge declares that we are right with him.  It is not a process, but a one-time declaration.  Furthermore, it is an acquittal, but it is more than that.  Not only are we not guilty, the judge also says that we are positively righteous.  And then – surprisingly -- after his declaration, the judge adopts for his children and heirs.  This is a sort of courtroom you will never find on earth with earthly judges and judicial systems.  God’s courtroom and the justification that takes place there is entirely unique.  For those who believe in Christ, this is all part of the biblical good news.

This afternoon we’re going to learn about the biblical gospel of justification

We’ll consider:

  1. The necessity of justification
  2. The basis of justification
  3. The instrument of justification

In Philippians 3 Paul uses some harsh words to describe the enemies of the gospel who were threatening the church at Philippi.  He does this because he deeply loves the believers and wants to protect them.  You can see this with verse 2.  Three times he says, “Look out!”  From that you can see that Paul was not going to be misunderstood.  These false teachers were dangerous and the church at Philippi needed to be on guard. 

What was at stake there?  What was so dangerous about those false teachers?  Verse 19 tells us that whatever it was they were teaching and believing was leading them to destruction.  They were denying something so essential and so basic that their salvation was in jeopardy. 

We can reconstruct this error from what we read in the rest of Philippians 3.  From what Paul says about circumcision and the law, it appears that these false teachers were Jewish.  They were likely teaching some form of works-salvation.  They would have said they believed in Christ, but they would say that Christ is not enough.  To be right with God one also needs to do good works and follow the law of Moses. 

However, both Paul and the false teachers saw that it was necessary for man to get right with God.  Where they differed was in their evaluation of human beings and what they can contribute.  In Romans 3, Paul said it clearly, quoting from Psalm 14, “There is no one righteous, not even one…”  Everyone is under sin.  In Isaiah 64:6, God teaches that all the acts that we do that we think are righteous are actually filthy rags in his sight.  They count for nothing – in fact, they’re offensive.  And so, Paul concludes in Romans 3:20, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin.”  We cannot get right with God on our own terms.  If we are to get right with God, it must be on God’s terms and in God’s way. 

So, while both Paul and the false teachers saw the necessity of justification, only Paul saw the necessity of justification on God’s terms and in accordance with God’s Word.  If we try to be justified on our own terms, the result will be disastrous.  In fact, then there is no justification.  Justification becomes a fiction when we seek it on our own terms.  Someone may think that they’re justified, but they’re self-deceived.     

Paul came to realize this.  He says that if those false teachers were right, he would have been Exhibit A for how to be justified with God.  He had it all before he became a Christian.  He was a super-Jew.  But his eyes were opened by God and he realized it was all a fiction.  He had nothing apart from Christ.  He stood condemned before the Judge.  And so do we all if we think ourselves to be right with God in any other way than that which is revealed in the Bible. 

The Catechism draws this out of Scripture when it says we know that what our conscience says is true.  We have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments.  We have never kept any of them.  We are still inclined to all evil.  What do we have that we could offer the Judge to persuade him to acquit us of all the charges against us?  Nothing; left to ourselves we have no defense.  Like Isaiah we would cry out, “Woe is me!  I am ruined!  I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  We need the true biblical gospel of justification. 

The heart of that good news is its basis.  How is it that God can declare that we are not only acquitted, but also that we are positively righteous before him?  The answer rests in Christ alone.  Particularly, as the Catechism says it, we are right with God because the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ are imputed (or credited) to us.  All of Christ’s sufferings for sin, all his perfect obedience his whole life long, those things are all granted to us.  In the great exchange, our sins were imputed or transferred to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness was imputed or transferred to us.  The result is that the Judge sees that we are not who we were, instead we are new creations.  We are in Christ, joined to him.  This is the basis for our justification.

This is captured in Holy Scripture in Philippians 3 as well.  Being found in Christ, Paul says, means he has given up on any righteousness of his own – in fact, all that so-called righteousness can go to the dogs.  Instead, being found in Christ, Paul will not have a righteousness of his own, but the righteousness that comes from God.  What Paul is saying is that he needs an alien righteousness, the righteousness of another.  That other is Christ and him alone.  The righteousness of Christ is the only basis for our justification.  “Only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God.”

The same point is made in Romans 3.  In verses 21 and 22, Paul speaks about a righteousness from God.  What is this righteousness?  Well, it is apart from law – in other words it has absolutely nothing to do with what people do.  Instead, this righteousness is found in the One sent by God, in Christ.  Verse 24 of Romans 3 says that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, though the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” 

The basis of our justification is God’s gracious provision of the righteousness of Christ.  We did nothing to deserve it, nothing to merit it.  In fact, we have done everything to forfeit it.  Look, God’s grace in Christ is not only unmerited favour, but dismerited favour!  Let me briefly illustrate.  Imagine a beggar on the street.  You’ve never seen him before.  Passing him by, he asks you for a dollar or two so he can buy some lunch.  The man has done nothing to deserve the money, but you, because you are gracious, decide to give it.  That’s a sort of unmerited favour.  But now imagine a different beggar a block or so further on.  You recognize this one.  He was the one who spray-painted your fence last night.  He was the one who tore up all the plants in front of your house.  He’s the one who harasses your kids when they’re playing outside.     Now this beggar asks you for some money.  You give it to him, despite all he’s done to you and your family.  That’s a sort of dismerited favour.  God’s grace and favour towards us are dismerited favour through and through.  We are that last beggar!  Realizing that only deepens our love for God and our thankfulness – because we see how rich and beautiful the gospel truly is!  How great a salvation we have in Christ!   

To receive all this, only one thing is necessary.  The Catechism says in QA 60, “If only I accept this gift with a believing heart.”  And in QA 61, “I can receive this righteousness and make it my own by faith only.”  In other words, faith and faith alone is the instrument of justification. 

In Philippians 3:9, Paul says that the righteousness of God comes to him through faith.  In other words, faith is the way that God’s righteousness is received.  Faith is like the hands that receive this wonderful gift from God.  Romans 3:22 says exactly the same.  It refers to the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”   Romans 4 goes on to speak about Abraham and how Abraham was justified, not by works of the law, but by his faith.  We could mention other places, but the Scriptures are clear enough that justification is by faith alone.

Or are they?  If I were to leave at that, somebody might come to me later and say, “But Pastor, what about James 2:24?”  James 2:24 says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  James has been using the example of Abraham and now he comes with exactly the opposite conclusion that Paul reached from Abraham.  Paul said that Abraham was justified by faith.  James says that Abraham was justified by faith and works.  What do we do with this?

The answer is simply that Paul and James use the same word but with different meanings.  In Romans, Paul uses the word “justify” to refer to a legal declaration by God.  In James, we find the word “justify” used to refer to a demonstration of one’s faith before people – we could also call that vindication.  One of the reasons we know this is because Paul and James are dealing with different questions.  Paul is concerned about how one can be right with God.  James is concerned with how the reality of faith can be demonstrated.  So, really the passage from James 2:24 has no direct bearing on what we’re considering in Lord’s Day 23.  The fact remains that justification is by faith alone.  Faith is the only instrument of justification. 

Loved ones, that leaves us with the call to believe the gospel.  Looking to Christ for everything you need for salvation is the only way you will be right with God.  Trusting in Christ and resting in him alone is the only way we are right before God and heirs to life everlasting.  So, loved ones, let me say it clearly:  accept the gift of Christ’s perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness with a believing heart.  Do it here this afternoon, do it for the first time, do it again, but do it!  God holds out this gift to you, accept it in faith and make it your own.  2 Corinthians 5:20,21:  “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf:  Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”   

Before we conclude, we ought to consider some of the contemporary challenges to believing this biblical gospel of justification.  By calling attention to some of the challenges, we can help guard ourselves against losing this good news.

I want to specifically mention two.  There are more, but there are two challenges that really deserve our attention.  They are connected, but I’ll let you reflect on what the connection might be between them. 

The first contemporary challenge to the biblical gospel of justification is narcissism.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the Greek myth of Narcissus.  Narcissus was a Greek hero famous for being a good-looking man.  In one version of the myth he had an identical twin sister with whom he would hunt.  They dressed similarly and did everything together.  Inappropriately (there aren’t very many appropriate Greek myths), he fell in love with his sister and then, for some reason, she died.  After her death, Narcissus saw her reflection in a pool of water.  He became obsessed with the image, only realizing that it was his own image after he tried to kiss it.   Narcissism is named after Narcissus.  Narcissism is simply an obsession with self. 

In many ways, our culture promotes and exalts narcissism.  Some forms of social media are just like modern day temples of narcissism.  It’s all focused on you and your image.  Well, how does our contemporary narcissism challenge the doctrine of justification?  A moment ago, when we were looking at the basis of justification, we noted that it involves an alien righteousness.  It involves the righteousness of another, of Christ.  We have to look outside of ourselves to be right with God.  Narcissism directs us to keep looking inside ourselves for everything.  Really, that kind of narcissism is just another variation on the lie told to Adam and Eve:  “You shall be as God.”

But it can be more subtle than that.  Narcissism also teaches us that there is value in others – we have to look for the value in others so that we can exploit them for our own benefit.  With all their selfishness, narcissists can still be (and often are) sociable people.  Other people are the means they use to serve themselves and their interests.  For us as believers, this has a danger.  We say that it is Christ’s righteousness that brings us into a right relationship with God.  But we can embrace that in a narcissistic and self-serving way.  Do we serve God, do we embrace Christ, only because of what we can get out of it?  Or do we serve God because we earnestly desire his praise and glory to be magnified? 

Narcissism tells us if that if we’re going to serve God, we should do it mainly because of what we can get from him.  The Bible tells us to serve God because it’s the thing we were created for, that we were created for his glory.                   

A second contemporary challenge to the biblical gospel of justification is the cultural trend of busyness.  This is a bit different than narcissism, because being busy in itself is not necessarily evil.  Narcissism in itself is evil.  But having lots of things to do is not in itself a wrong thing, though it could be.

Today, it seems everybody is busy.  In fact, if you are not busy, the thinking goes, you must be lazy.  Our culture, inside and outside the church, demands that we have a plate full of things to do and not enough time in which to do them.  For many people today, busyness is a badge of honour, a measure of one’s status.  If you’re really busy, you must be really important.  In our culture, and this includes the church, people are defined by what they do and what they accomplish. 

This challenges the gospel of justification because that gospel says that there’s nothing you can do to earn favour with God.  You will never make God owe you anything.  As a believer, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more or less.  We have to be careful because when we define ourselves in terms of what we do, and when we find our identity in our accomplishments, we’re not far from denying the gospel.  One author has called it “justification by busyness.”  The mindset works like this:  if I can work just a bit harder, then I will be successful – God will regard me positively and love me more.  Meanwhile, the biblical gospel of justification tells us there is nothing we can do.  It’s only when we are weak and powerless that we are strong.  Now perhaps we don’t explicitly connect our busyness to a denial of the gospel, but let’s be aware that this could be our ultimate destination.  We have to find our identity and the basis of our relationship with God, not in what we do, but in who Christ is and what he has done for us apart from us. 

The biblical gospel of justification is counter-cultural in every day and age.  It goes against the grain of our fallen human nature.  That nature always gravitates towards the exaltation of self.  So, it takes not only the divine gift of faith to embrace this doctrine, but also its close cousin humility.  Loved ones, let’s pray that God would give us these gifts and continue giving us these gifts, so that we, like Paul, would “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”  AMEN.


God of grace and compassion

We thank you for the beautiful biblical gospel of justification.  It’s truly news that is good to our ears and our hearts.  We praise and adore you for it.  We thank you for the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ freely offered to us so that we can be right with you.  O God, help us to accept this gift with a believing heart.  Help us, each and every one, to receive this righteousness by faith and make it our own.   Please work in us with your Spirit so that our eyes are opened to the challenges before us in our culture.  Help us to discern and keep us on the right track set out for us in your Word.  Forgive us for all the times that we have succumbed to the Spirit of the age, for our narcissism and for our using busyness as a form of justification.  Help us to turn our backs on these things and to serve you with purity according to your holy gospel.        

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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