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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:You can only be justified through faith in Christ
Text:BC 22 and 23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 66:1-4

Psalm 121

Hymn 28:1,6,7

Hymn 1

Hymn 35

Scripture readings: Zechariah 3:1-5, Galatians 3:1-14

Catechism lesson:  Belgic Confession articles 22 and 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,

Are you one of those people who’d rather be shown than told?  Many people learn best when they’re given a picture or an illustration to go with what’s being taught.  It’s something their brain latches on to and it just seems to make everything connect better. 

In the Bible, God gives us many illustrations and pictures of important spiritual truths.  Just think of the way he reveals the covenant of grace to us as a relationship.  The covenant of grace is portrayed as a marriage relationship between God and his people.  Like in a human marriage, there are promises made on both sides and commitments too.  That illustration drives home the reality of what the covenant of grace is about.

This afternoon we’re learning about justification.  With justification too, God has given us a picture of what this is about.  Whenever we hear about the spiritual truth of justification, we should think of a courtroom.  Justification is an idea borrowed from the legal world.

Let me draw out the picture for you.  Imagine a courtroom.  There’s a Judge – that’s God.  There’s the accused, also known as a defendant – and that’s sinners like you and me.  There’s a law book – that’s God’s moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments.  There are charges against the accused.  We’re charged with having broken all of God’s commandments, both with what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.  But then there’s also a defense. Jesus Christ is the defender and he intervenes, presenting an airtight case that allows justice to be satisfied and yet mercy to be shown.  Justification is the joyous outcome.  That’s the picture God wants us to have in our minds when we hear the word “justification.”

This afternoon with the help of our Belgic Confession, we’re going to dig a bit deeper into this Bible teaching.  We’ll learn how You can only be justified through faith in Christ.  There are three questions I’ll answer in this sermon:

  1. What does it mean to be justified?
  2. What does it mean to have faith in Christ?
  3. What does this all mean for everyday life?

The story is told of a Canadian golfer by the name of David Mulligan.  It was in the 1920s and he was playing at a course in Montreal, Quebec.  He teed up and took his shot, but it veered wildly off the course.  He teed up again and did it over and said that the first one didn’t count.  Depending on which version of the story you read, it was either him or his fellow golfers who termed it a mulligan.  You might call it a do-over.  It’s when you mess up and then you just forget about your bad shot, it doesn’t count, and you try again.

But what do mulligans have to do with justification?  A number of years ago a famous American pastor by the name of Rick Warren used the idea of a mulligan to explain what happens with justification.  He said that your life is like that game of golf.  Sometimes you mess up and make a bad shot.  Rick Warren said that justification means that God gives you a mulligan.  God gives you a do-over.  He forgets your bad shot and gives you another chance to do better.  Loved ones, that’s one of the worst illustrations ever for justification.

The biblical teaching of what it means to be justified is far better.  The picture given us in Zechariah 3 is far better.  It’s a legal picture.  There’s a man named Joshua the High Priest standing before the angel of the LORD.  The angel represents God as judge.  Joshua is being accused by Satan – Satan wants to see Joshua condemned.  But his charges are tossed out by God.  Nevertheless, Joshua is still standing before the Judge with filthy garments – literally it says excrement-soiled clothes.  This is the high priest.  If he’s unclean, then there’s no way that the sacrificial system can work the way it should.  The people would have no hope for forgiveness.  God does something about this problem.  He removes the filthy, excrement-soiled clothes.  That’s a picture of sin being forgiven, sin being removed from God’s sight.  But here’s the important point:  Joshua isn’t left naked.  He isn’t left to clothe himself.  Instead, God says, “I will clothe you with pure vestments.”  Then he does.  This is a picture of how God credits righteousness to poor, naked sinners.  As a result of this clothing, not only is Joshua cleaned up before God’s presence, he’s also enabled to be an instrument of blessing and forgiveness for the people as the High Priest.  He’s ready to serve.

What does it mean to be justified?  It’s being forgiven, but it’s so much more.  It’s far more than having your sins removed.  It’s more than being declared innocent by the Judge.  To be justified means you’re declared righteous.  This is really important to understand, so let me unpack that a little more for you. 

Sometimes justification is described as God giving us a clean slate.  So you had a slate that was full of sin.  All your wrongdoing was recorded on that slate.  Then in justification God wiped the slate clean.  Now you have a blank slate, there’s nothing on it.  But in the biblical picture of justification, God now takes that empty slate and he fills it with something.  He fills it with all the righteousness of Jesus Christ, every good thing he ever did.  In the words of our Belgic Confession article 22, God “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”  Jesus led a perfectly obedient life and as article 23 says, “his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”  So now God has declared us righteous.  That’s his verdict and that’s how he now views us.  He views us as righteous, as people who are not only forgiven, but also as those who’ve perfectly and consistently kept the law.  Just like Christ. 

To be justified is to be declared righteous on account of what Christ has done for us in his life and death on the cross.  This is a change in our legal status before God.  The precise opposite of being sinful isn’t being innocent – it’s included, but it’s something more.  Listen:  the precise opposite of being sinful is being righteous – perfect obedience to God.  That’s what we have in our justification.  That’s what makes the good news so good.

So how can you or anyone be justified in this way?  The Bible teaches us that you can only be justified through faith in Jesus Christ.  Our reading from Galatians 3 says that God would justify the Gentiles by faith.  Then in verse 11, Paul quotes from Habakkuk and says, “The righteous shall live by faith.”  Similarly, it says in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Then Romans 4, like Galatians 3, speaks of Abraham’s justification by faith as an example or illustration.

Let me first tell you what justification by faith doesn’t mean.  Article 22 says “strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us….”  You could also think of what Lord’s Day 23 says, “Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith…”  In other words, our faith isn’t the basis of our justification.  It’s not as if God looks at our faith and judges that to be worthy of his verdict of righteous.  Faith isn’t the ultimate reason why we’re justified.  We don’t earn it with our faith.

Instead, the Bible teaches us that faith is the essential instrument of our justification.  This is because faith is how we get connected to Christ and what he’s done in our place as the basis for our justification.  If you don’t have any connection to Christ and what he’s done, you can’t be justified.  You can’t be declared righteous.  The necessary connection to Christ is faith.  This faith isn’t something that comes from us – instead, according to Ephesians 2:8, it’s a gracious gift of God.   

Then that raises the question:  what does faith look like in justification?  What does faith do?  Our confession says it really well in article 22:  “This faith embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits, makes him our own, and does not seek anything besides him.”  Then a little further, “…faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness….”  I love that language of embracing.  There’s a picture there, a picture of affectionately holding on to Jesus as if your life depends on it.  Because it does.  Faith is like the hands that take hold of Jesus so we can be saved from the eternal death we deserve. 

Article 23 adds another element to what faith looks like and what it does.  It speaks of resting and relying “on the only obedience of Jesus Christ crucified.” Resting and relying, or as you hear it more often, resting and trusting.  Faith’s activity in justification is resting and relying, resting and trusting.  It’s saying, “I can’t do anything for myself to be declared righteous by God.  I quit trying and I’m going to just trust in what Jesus did for me.  I’m going to lean on him completely.” 

It’s really important that we understand the place of good works here.  Listen to me carefully.  There is a place for good works, but not at all for our good works.  The only place for good works in our justification is the good works done by Christ as part of the basis for our justification.  When it comes to us, there’s no place.  None.  No place for your good works or mine.  This is why Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” and Galatians 3:11 says, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law…”  Your good works are like filthy rags, says God.  You need the righteousness of Christ and the only way you can obtain it is through faith.  Brothers and sisters, place your trust in Christ alone.  Never, ever look to yourself.

Let’s say I were to do a survey this afternoon while you’re walking out of church.  I’m not going to do this, but just imagine if I were to.  The survey is just one question:  if you were to die tonight and appear before God and he were to ask you why he should let you into heaven, what would you say?  What would you say?  Loved ones, any answer other than Christ alone and what he’s done for us is a wrong answer, a deadly wrong answer.  All our faith and trust for eternal life has to be placed in Jesus alone.  The only way to be justified and the only way to get to heaven is through faith in Christ alone.  Do you have that faith?

When it comes to doctrines like justification, it might seem like it has little to do with our everyday lives.  After all, apart from faith, we don’t have a role to play in our justification.  God is the one who declares us righteous and Christ is the one who provides the basis for our justification.  And that’s all true.  But this Bible teaching does impact our lives, it bears fruit.  In the last point here this afternoon, we’ll just look at three ways in which justification touches on the way we live every day. 

First, there’s humility.  Listen again to our Belgic Confession in article 23, “We give all the glory to God, humble ourselves before him, and acknowledge ourselves to be what we are.”  What is it that we are in ourselves?  In ourselves we’re sinners.  This is why Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  We bring nothing to our salvation except the sin that made it necessary.  The only thing we bring into the courtroom where our justification happens is our sin.  We have nothing to offer the Judge.  Christ has everything.  Realizing that ought to humble us each day.  We’re not justified because of us, but because of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. 

That humility ought to then be there when we deal with other sinners.  Maybe it’s the other sinners in your household.  Maybe it’s your husband or wife or your parents.  You’ve been shown grace in your justification – you didn’t deserve it.  Are you prepared to be humble and show grace to others?  Let me add that this doesn’t mean overlooking or minimizing situations where you’re being abused by someone.  Humility doesn’t mean allowing yourself, someone created in the image of God, to be trampled on and treated like trash.  The biblical principle of humbly showing grace to fellow sinners doesn’t mean we’re going to just accept abuse.  God hates abuse and he condemns it as a wicked and horrible sin.  So we can’t accept it, we shouldn’t.  You can be humble and at the same time still stand up and say that you won’t put up with any more abuse. 

The second connection to everyday life has to do with our identity.  There’s a lot of talk these days about identity in our world.  How you think of yourself matters for how you’re going to live your life.  We have to think of ourselves the way Scripture teaches us to think of ourselves and then live accordingly. 

On the one hand, as I just mentioned, Scripture reminds us that we’re still sinners.  In ourselves, apart from that legal status we’ve received by grace in Christ, we still have the remnants of a sinful nature.  Those remnants lure us back into rebelling against God each day.  Though we’re no longer under God’s condemnation, we’re still sinners.  That reality leads us to daily confession and every day seeking forgiveness from our heavenly Father.

On the other hand, Scripture teaches us that we’re justified sinners.  As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”  We have a new identity in Jesus Christ.  That identity has been granted to us in our justification.  When God declares that you’re perfectly righteous, he’s saying he now views you as he views Christ.  You’re united to Christ, inseparably connected to him spiritually speaking.  That reality leads us to a desire to be who we are.  If we are righteous in Christ in God’s eyes, then we want to be righteous as we live life here from day to day too.  We want to be who we are.  Since we want that, we pray for that and we take whatever other steps we can to move in that direction.  Steps like making a daily habit of reading and studying Scripture, steps like reading good Christian stuff or listening to good Christian podcasts.  Steps like attending church regularly and studying the Bible with your brothers and sisters.  These are the sorts of things God will use to help us become more and more who we are in Christ.

The last way justification impacts everyday life is in terms of gratitude.  We tend to associate the book of Romans with justification, more than any other book of the Bible.  That’s partly because of its role in church history, especially with Martin Luther.  Luther was reading and studying Romans and that’s how God made him realize that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone.  One of the memorable things about the book of Romans as a whole is its structure.  Chapters 1 to 3 are mainly about sin and misery.  Chapters 4 to 11 are about salvation, including our justification.  Romans 12 to 16 are about gratitude, about the living of a Christian life in thankfulness to God.  So the idea of gratitude as a response to our justification comes straight from Scripture in the book of Romans.  As Romans teaches us, that gratitude comes to expression in all kinds of different ways. 

It comes to expression in how we regard one another in the church.  Romans 14 is all about being mindful and considerate towards our brothers and sisters who may have different views on non-essential things.  If you’re grateful for your justification, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?”

Gratitude comes to expression in how we regard government.  Romans 13 teaches us to be “subject to the governing authorities.”  Those who rule over us have been appointed by God.  So, if you’re grateful for your justification, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.”           

Gratitude comes to expression in genuine love, the abhorrence of evil, holding fast to what is good.  Thankfulness is shown with blessing those who persecute us and not cursing them.  It’s shown with living peaceably with all, so far as it depends on us, and so much more. 

But Christian gratitude in response to justification is also an attitude.  It’s the attitude which leads us to wake up in the morning and say, “Thank you, Father.  It feels so good to be justified.  I’m so glad for your verdict of righteous pronounced over me.  Thank you that I have the righteousness of Christ as my own. Thank you that my sins are forgiven through the cross and that I have perfect obedience in Jesus.”  Loved ones, I want to encourage you to regularly give thanks like that for your justification.  After all, it’s a precious, beautiful gift that we ought never to take for granted.

To finish, there are two key things I want you to remember from this sermon.  First, to be justified is to be declared righteous by God because of what Christ has done.  Remember the courtroom.  Justification is a courtroom picture.  In this picture, there’s a Judge issuing a verdict.  The verdict is more than innocent, it’s RIGHTEOUS.  I want you to remember that because it’s so beautiful and so encouraging.  You are righteous in Christ!  The other thing I want you to remember is what faith does.  Faith takes hold of Christ alone.  Faith rests and trusts only in Jesus.  You won’t be declared righteous unless Christ is yours.  So faith is vital.  Loved ones, it’s true:  you can only be justified through faith in Jesus Christ.  AMEN.


Heavenly Father,

We’re so glad again for the gospel of our justification.  Thank you that you declare sinners like us righteous in Jesus Christ.  We’re grateful that we not only have the forgiveness of all our sins, but also perfect positive righteousness credited to us as we rest and trust in Jesus.  Please help all of us with your Holy Spirit to look to Christ as our only hope for heaven.  If there’s anyone here, whether young or old, who doesn’t yet do that, we pray that your Holy Spirit would make it happen.  Please give to everyone here this afternoon that precious gift of faith.  We also pray that your Spirit would work in us so that we’re humble in recognition of what you’ve done.  Father, to your Name alone be all the glory for our justification.  Show us more and more what it means to live out our identity in Christ.  Teach us with your Word and Spirit how to be who we are in him.  And please fill our hearts more and more with gratitude each day for this beautiful justification we have in Jesus.  Give us an attitude of gratitude and let that attitude spill over into our lives in every moment. 


* 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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