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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The Justification of the Ungodly: A Real-life Courtroom Drama
Text:LD 23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 6

Psalm 116:1-4

Hymn 28:5-7

Hymn 1

Psalm 62:1-4

Scripture reading: Romans 3:1-26

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 Jesus Christ,
The battle to abolish slavery in the British Empire consumed nearly forty-six years of a man’s life.  The battle began in 1787 and wasn’t won until 1833.  It took parliamentarian William Wilberforce twelve attempts before he was able to see the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.  And it took another 26 years, until 1833, that he was able to see slavery done away with all together in the British empire.  William Wilberforce is a picture of endurance and perseverance, continuing to press forward even when the situation looked hopeless.  He was a man of conviction and extraordinary patience.  But what motivated him?  What was the fuel that kept his engine running for forty-six long years?

William Wilberforce was a Christian.  In his book, A Practical View of Christianity, he explained how true Christianity is rooted in the great doctrines of the Bible about sin and Christ and faith.  He insisted that getting doctrine right was the key to the personal and political reformation of morals.  At the center of all of that was the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  Wilberforce argued that when people don’t give a rip about doctrine in general, and they’re not impressed and gripped by the biblical doctrine of justification in particular, we ought not to be surprised when there’s so much immorality and a lack of concern for society and our neighbours.  For Wilberforce himself, this was what drove him forward.  He was impressed by God’s grace for sinners, he was gripped by the doctrine of justification, he was in awe of God and his mercy in Christ.  By God’s grace, this is what kept Wilberforce going in his battle to abolish slavery.

The biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone isn’t only a powerful motivator to Christian living.  It’s also rightly been called the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  If you get justification wrong or if you ignore it or minimize it, all kinds of other problems result.  However, if we follow the Bible’s teaching and enthusiastically embrace it, all sorts of blessings result.  This is a central Christian doctrine.  And that’s why it’s good we can again learn about it this afternoon, using Lord’s Day 23 of our Catechism as our guide.  We’re going to see that the Bible presents this doctrine in a particular way, as a court-room drama.  But this is a real-life courtroom drama and it involves the justification of the ungodly.  As we see this drama played out, we’ll consider:

  1. The judge
  2. The accused
  3. The defense
  4. The verdict

The first thing we have to realize is that when the Bible speaks about justification, it does so with legal language.  In fact, the word “justification” itself comes out of the world of the courtroom – it was a legal term.  Like any courtroom in action, this one too has any number of different figures who have their own specific role. 

So, for instance, the Bible tells us there is a judge.  In Romans 3:6, God is said to be the one who will judge the world.  In 3:19, the whole world will be held accountable to God.  And in verse 20, God is the one who makes the declaration of righteous or unrighteous.  God is the one who renders the verdict – he is the judge. 

And while the Son and the Holy Spirit are involved as well, the work of God as judge in this courtroom is especially the work of God the Father.  This is apparent in verse 26 of Romans 3 when Paul writes that God is the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”  When he says this, he makes a distinction between Jesus and the justifier.  God the Father is the Judge behind the bench in this courtroom. 

That becomes a problem for us because this divine Judge is holy, holy, holy.  That means he’s completely set apart from sin.  His holiness extends to his justice and righteousness.  He will always do right, always carry out what is good – his actions will always be consistent with his righteous character.  If you offend him and don’t repent, there’s going to be trouble.  If you break his law, watch out.  Psalm 7:11-12 vividly lays out the problem:  “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.  If a man does not repent, God will whet [sharpen] his sword; he has bent and readied his bow…”  In other words, if you get on the wrong side of this judge, he’ll be on the warpath.

Now it’s true that our Catechism doesn’t explicitly mention that God is the judge in regards to justification.  But it is there in those two words that occur in each question and answer of Lord’s Day 23, “before God.”  The next Lord’s Day expands on that.  Question 62 says, “But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it?”  And then the answer says, “Because the righteousness which can stand before God’s judgment...”  Standing before God is standing before God’s judgment, before God as judge.

As far as the accused are concerned, that’s each and every one of us.  We have all been indicted, brought up on charges before the judge of heaven and earth.  Those charges are three-fold, according to the teaching of Scripture summarized in the Catechism. 

In the first place, we’re accused of grievously sinning against all of God’s commandments.  As James says in 2:10 of his letter, if you’ve broken one commandment, you’ve broken them all.  Furthermore, we don’t just sin by accident, but willingly and intentionally.  By nature, we love sin.  More than that, we need to remember that sin is not just what we do, it’s who we are.  We have a sinful nature and it’s part of who we are.  In the middle of Mark 7 our Lord Jesus gave a whole list of sins and he said these proceed from the heart.  The heart is sinful – and the heart is part of who we are.  So, sin isn’t just what we do, it’s also who we are.  Sin has infected and infiltrated our very being.   

Second, we’re accused of having never kept any of God’s commandments.  In some way or other, we’ve constantly broken each and every commandment.  We’re life-long sinners. 

Finally, we’re accused of still being inclined to all evil.  Even after we believe in Jesus Christ, we still have an inclination to evil.  We remain committed to it, although as our Christian life proceeds, we do grow less and less committed.

These accusations have a basis in what the Bible says in passages like Romans 3.   We need to remember that the letter to the Romans is a letter to a Christian church.  Paul was writing to the believers in the church at Rome.  He reminds the believers in verses 9 to 18 that the law of God accuses each and every one of us.  He asks, “Are we any better?  Not at all!  We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin....”  And then he goes on with these quotations from a number of Old Testament passages.  These passages establish the fact that we are the accused.  These are serious charges and we ought not to downplay them – because if we downplay them, we may lose sight of how good the good news really is.  The good news is only so good because the bad news is so bad.

And as we consider ourselves as the accused and as we reflect on the charges against us, we also have to think about the consequences of the verdict.  A guilty verdict results in a death sentence – an eternal death sentence.  If you’re found guilty of these charges, you’ll be thrown from the courtroom into a lake of burning fire.  That only underlines the seriousness of the charges, of the accusations that stand against us.  We need a high-powered defense to come to our assistance.

We have such a defense in Jesus Christ.  He is the righteousness from God to which the law and the prophets testify, as Paul says in Romans 3:21.  Jesus Christ brings to the judge his perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness.  Our Saviour makes the best possible defense for us. 

He says, “Yes, my client has grievously sinned against the law.  But I have paid the penalty.  In my suffering and death, I bore the curse.  I took the punishment that he or she deserves.  I did it for her or him, I did it in their place.”  This is Christ’s perfect satisfaction.

He goes on and says, “Yes, my client has never kept any of the commandments.  But I have lived a perfect life of obedience.  I never broke any of the commandments.  Not one!  I did it for him or her, I did it in their place.”  This is Christ’s perfect righteousness. 

As he draws to the close of his defense he says, “And yes, it is true that my client is still inclined to all evil.  However, I am not, nor have I ever been.  I offer to the judge my pure heart in his or her place.”  This is Christ’s perfect holiness. 

And as we, the accused, hear this defense, we must all say “Yes, and amen.  He did bear the curse for me.  Yes, he did keep the law for me.  Yes, Jesus has a pure heart for me.”  This is the essence of faith, resting and trusting in Christ and his perfect work of redemption for us.  Faith means we rest in Christ, we say, “No, I cannot be right with God on the basis of what I do.”  Resting in Christ means to stop trying to measure up for God.  Resting in Christ means we stop seeing the law as a way to earn our salvation.  Resting in Christ means we lean entirely on him.  Then faith also means trusting in him, we say, “Yes, he is my Saviour and I rely entirely on his satisfaction, righteousness and holiness.  I have no other hope besides him.” 

You see, the accused must embrace the defense.  If there’s to be a way out of the accusations and the justice that must follow, we have to make that defense our own, we have to sign off on it, and the way we do that is by faith.  Loved ones, this afternoon our God is calling us again to be sure that we, that you individually, that all of us are believing in Christ, resting and trusting in him alone.  Faith in Christ is the only way this courtroom drama can have a happy ending.

However, that doesn’t mean our faith is what makes us acceptable to God.  Our Catechism emphasizes that point in question and answer 61.  Faith isn’t what makes us acceptable to God – rather, it’s only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ that can save us.  Faith itself doesn’t save us, but no one will be saved without faith.  No one will be saved without faith, because faith is the instrument or the tool by which we take hold of the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ. 

John Calvin used the illustration of a clay pot used to hold gold and silver coins.  The clay pot is not valuable.  The clay pot is nothing special.  It’s not the clay pot that makes the owner rich, but rather what’s inside it.  In the same way, we’re not saved by our faith as such, but by Christ, who is the one our faith grasps.  We can have a part in Christ’s riches only through faith.  By faith we are grafted into Christ and share in all his riches and treasures.  So, faith itself doesn’t save us, but no one will be saved without faith.  Each one of us needs to personally embrace Jesus Christ and his perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness.  I would add that a little, weak faith still takes hold of a great Christ.  It’s not about the strength of your faith.  Even faith as small as a mustard seed has possession of everything Christ has to offer.  The important thing is that you do believe, that you do take hold of Christ.  

And that brings us to the glorious conclusion of this courtroom drama:  the verdict.  In Lord’s Day 23, we find that verdict in those words “I am righteous” in answer 59 and God’s imputation and grant of Christ’s perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness in answer 60, and the fact that I am acceptable to God in answer 61.  I am righteous, I am acceptable – the verdict is in and the judge has declared me “Not guilty.”  And not only that, but the judge also says I am positively righteous – he will regard me as someone who not only has not broken the law, but who has positively kept everything in the law. 

This verdict is rendered because of Christ and his defense.  Romans 3:24 says we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...”  Our justification has its basis entirely in Christ and what he has done for us and in our place.  As Paul says in Romans 3:27, there’s no room for our boasting.  Our salvation is entirely of grace alone.  We’re justified entirely and only by Christ’s merits, not our own.

Justification means God declares us to be right with himself.  That’s the basic meaning of this doctrine.  And the result is something wonderful:  we’re adopted into God’s family.  That’s implied in answer 59 when it says we’re heirs to life everlasting.  If we tease that out, it means that once the trial is over, the judge comes down from the bench, takes off his robe, and says “Welcome to my family!”  We go from the courtroom to the family room.  God is no longer the judge, he is no longer just the Father of Jesus Christ, rather, he becomes our Father.  Through the verdict of justification, we become his adopted children.

On a human level, sometimes adopted children are treated differently from natural children.  The natural children receive a different sort of love.  They have a different place in the family.  The adopted children feel like they’re really not part of the family, at least not in the same way.  That doesn’t always happen, but it can and does and has happened -- in earthly families.  But in God’s family, that doesn’t happen, ever.  The adopted children have the same rights and privileges as the natural child, as God’s only-begotten Son.  Through Christ, because of Christ and what he’s done for us, we’re as loved by God as his only true and natural Son.  God cannot love us more and he will certainly never love us less.  And we have the promise of an inheritance:  the new creation is waiting for us, an inheritance in which we will be experiencing a family reunion like no family reunion we’ve ever attended in this age.

This is the biblical doctrine of justification and holding to it is a wonderful comfort and it lifts up our hearts and thoughts to God in praise.  When we consider this doctrine, we realize what an amazing God we have and we’re led to be more impressed with him.  Like William Wilberforce, we long to magnify his worth with everything in our lives, and everything in our being.  That being true, we should also be on our guard against anything that would endanger this doctrine. 

This afternoon, I just want to mention one popular false teaching that endangers the biblical doctrine of justification.  It’s the idea that Christians are not sinners.  There are those who say that Christians are only saints.  We cannot identify ourselves as sinners and we shouldn’t see ourselves as sinners.  They insist that the Reformed teaching that Christians are both sinners and saints is at best wrong, and at worst a terrible and destructive lie. 

Loved ones, denying that Christians are at the same time sinners and saints endangers the doctrine of justification.  You cannot deny that Christians are sinners and saints without also drawing into question the doctrine of justification, that doctrine found in Scripture and reflected in Lord’s Day 23.

Let me explain how that works.  You’ll have to listen carefully because it would be easy to miss something important here.  The key passage is 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  This passage describes a key part of our justification, what we call imputation.  Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us, meaning it was reckoned or accounted to us by God.  Our sin was imputed to Christ, meaning it was reckoned or accounted to Christ by God.  There’s an exchange taking place here.  Martin Luther called this “the joyous exchange” or you could say “the sweet swap.”  The result of this swap or exchange is that we are declared righteous before God, we have justification. 

Now the important thing to realize here is that Christ remained of himself righteous, intrinsically righteous.  He never sinned.  But yet, God accounted our sins to him in the atonement.  Our sins were imputed to him.  He became in God’s sight what he was not.  God made him to be sin for us.  That’s the clear teaching of 2 Corinthians 5:21.

On the flip side of this exchange, there’s us.  We’re not of ourselves righteous, but are rather sinners.  Remember sin is not just what we do, it’s who we are.  But yet, God accounted Christ’s righteousness to us.  His righteousness was imputed to us.  We became in God’s sight what we are not.  In him we have become the righteousness of God.  Of ourselves, intrinsically, we remain sinners, but in Christ God accounts us as righteous.  That’s what’s behind those two little words in the Catechism in answer 60, as if, “as if I had never had nor committed any sin,” and “as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me.”  The “as if” captures what happens in imputation.  God accounts us to be what we are not in ourselves.  That’s crucially important to understand.

Closely related to that is what we find in Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”  God justifies the ungodly who have faith.  Do you see the problem there if you deny that Christians are both sinners and saints?  It is only those who have faith that are justified, it is only Christians.  But yet Paul says that God justifies the wicked.  God justifies ungodly believers.  In this life, we’re at the same time saints and sinners.  That’s not to say that we are not being sanctified, that we are not being changed.  Once we are justified, change begins taking place within us – absolutely!  Justification initiates the process of sanctification, and that’s a process taking place through the course of a lifetime.  But it’s only in the hereafter that we’re glorified.  It’s only in the hereafter that we leave sin totally behind and are only saints, that we’re entirely new nature creatures. 

In theology, the only people who deny that Christians are at the same time saints and sinners are the same people who have a problem with the biblical doctrine of justification.  That should be a warning.  There’s a direct connection between those two and thinking that you can have one without the other is short-sighted.    

Loved ones, I wouldn’t tell you all of this if it wasn’t important.  As I mentioned there are many authors and others who run into trouble on this and sadly they confuse a lot of people.  Let there be no confusion about this:  the wonderful truth is that we are justified in God’s sight.  As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  We’re totally right in God’s sight.  But yet we also have the remnants of a sinful nature with which we have to struggle.  It’s that which leads the apostle elsewhere to identify himself as a sinner.  He does that so he’d remain humble and keep on seeing his need for Christ and for the gospel.  And remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18?  Our Lord Jesus commended the tax collector who cried out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  He said that it was this believer who went home justified, a believer who knew himself to be a sinner, who recognized his constant need for God’s grace.  “Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”    

We’re justified in Christ, we’re right with God right now, but the full measure of our redemption isn’t yet here.  Recognizing that we remain sinners in this life, we constantly look to Christ and we also groan inwardly and call out to God for the last day, when faith shall become sight.  As Paul says in Romans 8:24-25, “…who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  And we wait eagerly!

Loved ones, the doctrine of justification is at the heart of the gospel.  It’s about how a just God declares sinners to be right with himself through the merits of Jesus Christ.  It’s at the heart of the drama of our redemption.  It is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  When we understand, believe, and embrace this doctrine, it truly gives fuel for our thankfulness and our love for God.  AMEN.


Father in heaven,

We thank you for the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ.  We thank you that in him we are righteous before you and that we’ve also been adopted into your family and are heirs to life everlasting.  As we’ve been considering this doctrine of justification, Father we realize how wonderful you are.  We’re more impressed with you and your grace.  Of ourselves, we are sinners, unworthy of any gift or blessing.  But because of Christ, we have received everything from you.  Father, thank you.  Please continue working in us with your Holy Spirit, so that our faith would be strengthened, so that our awe for you would only abound, so that our lives would reflect the awe we have for you and our desire to amplify your glory, to magnify your worth.  There is none like you, O God and so we praise you for the good news and for every other good gift from your hand. 

* 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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