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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:The gospel is that sinners are declared righteous
Text:LD 23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

From 1984 Book of Praise

Psalm 71:1

Psalm 130:4

Psalm 38:1,2,4,10

Psalm 116:1,2,3,4

Hymn 58:2

Read:  Romans 3

Text:  Lord’s day 23

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When David wrote Psalm 38, he must have been feeling rotten.  “My iniquities distress me” we just sang.  And, “I am crushed and numb with anguish as I languish, and I groan in misery.”  And verse 8, which we didn’t sing, “I acknowledge my transgression in confession, deeply troubled by my sin.”  What David was feeling was guilt.  And guilt leads to shame and fear. 

Guilt was what caused Adam and Eve to hide from God and cover themselves with fig leaves.  Guilt was what caused David to try to cover up his sin with Bathsheba to the point of killing Uriah.  Guilt is what we experience when our conscience accuses us that we have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and are still inclined to all evil.

The question that has plagued mankind since the Fall into sin is, what can be done about our guilt?

The world has offered a number of solutions.  “The reason we feel guilty” some say, “is because the expectations we have of ourselves and of others are old fashioned and outdated.  Instead of feeling guilty about your behaviour, have a “pride day” and be proud of who you are and what you do.  Others try to crowd out the voice of guilt by keeping busy, refusing to stop and think.  They always have to be doing something, and when they are alone they’ll keep the Television blaring to drown out the voice of conscience.  And others will try to avoid guilt feelings by taking alcohol, drugs, or even through suicide. 

But another common way for many people to attempt to drown out the voice of guilt is through religion.  Many people who worship a god do so not just to gain something in return but also to pay for their wrongs and ease their guilty conscience through good works or various religious duties.  It is an attempt to make things right by yourself so that you might be accepted as a good and righteous person.

The Bible, however, shows us that our guilt is actually far greater than we even realize!  It is so great that there is no way we could pay for it and make things right. God’s righteous law teaches us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that all the world has become guilty before God and that by deeds of the law “no flesh will be justified in His sight”.  (Romans 3:19,20)

But the Bible also teaches us something else.  It is not the righteous who will be declared righteous (for there is none righteous, no, not one)  but sinners who are declared righteous.  God will lift us, who are guilty, up and on account of Christ’s obedience, declare us not guilty but righteous. And all we must do is accept this with a believing heart.  And that is the Gospel I am privileged to preach to you this morning.  I do so under the following heading:

The Gospel is that sinners are declared righteous.

Sinners are declared righteous:

1.    In Christ alone.

2.    Through Faith alone.

3.    By Grace alone.

1. Sinners are declared righteous in Christ alone.

One of the most urgent, desperate questions in the Bible was asked by the Philippian Jailer to Paul and Silas.  “Sirs”, he said, “What must I do to be saved?”  It is a question that we must all ask when we are faced with the depth of our sin and misery.  “Since I have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil, what can be done so that I am again received into God’s favour and declared righteous before God?”

This was the Great Question of the Reformation.  John Calvin called the answer to this question “the hinge of the Reformation”, and one of the authors of the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, said that if we don’t get this right, our faith falls to pieces.  The answer to this question was given in the doctrine of justification through faith alone by grace alone and in Christ alone.

The word justification, which we find above Lord’s Day 23 of our Catechism, is a legal term and we understand it to mean “to be declared just or righteous.”  Justification is not the same as being made holy – that’s sanctification. Justification is a declaration that one is “not guilty” but “righteous”.  There are no levels to justification: you are justified or you are not.  And you are justified not on account of your own works but on account of Christ’s works.

The Roman Catholics, however, did not have the same understanding of how you are justified.  They believed that through baptism, and also the Mass, God puts some of His righteousness in you, and then you become justified through how you live out your life.  For the Roman Catholics, therefore, you are made righteous in God’s eyes through a combination of Christ’s works and your own. 

Most of us feel far enough removed from the Roman Catholic teaching on justification through works to be happy to reject it without looking in to it more closely.  However over the last number of years there have also been other views which reinterpret the doctrine of how we are righteous in the eyes of God.

One of these views teaches that we must understand the doctrine of justification from the perspective of the covenant.  You become a part of the covenant by baptism.  That’s God’s work and it is only possible because of what Christ has done.  But now that you are in the covenant, it is your responsibility to stay in the covenant.  And the way to stay in the covenant is by your works.  Then, if you remain in the covenant by obeying your obligation to the law, at the end of the age you will be truly justified, or declared righteous on the basis of your faith in Christ as well as your life and works.  God will declare you to be righteous because you were obedient to His law.

This teaching requires us to think a little more deeply.  For it is true that God has established a covenant with us.  And it is true that in the covenant there is a promise and an obligation, and that we are called and obliged by the Lord to a new obedience.  However:  are we justified, declared righteous by God because we live in covenant holiness before the Lord?

That is not what the Catechism teaches.  The Catechism does teach us that we must live holy lives and even teaches us how to live holy lives.  But it states very clearly that we do not live holy lives in order to become righteous or justified, or even to stay righteous.  The reason the Catechism gives for us living holy lives and doing good works is because we are justified.  As we will see next week, good works are a fruit of thankfulness.  But you do not have to rely on your works, in fact you can not rely on your works to be declared righteous before God and an heir to life everlasting.  As soon as we have to do something to be made acceptable in the eyes of God, our justification becomes a combination of Christ’s work and ours. 

And then we would become depressed about our sins all over again because we fail so miserably.  And then we would despair, worried all over again that we would not be good enough to go to heaven …

But what does the Bible say?

We read together from Romans 3.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul answered the questions of who is saved and how we are saved.  In Romans, Paul began by declaring that the Gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes, both for the Jews and for the Greeks.  He taught that the Jews did not have a different way to be saved, nor did they have a higher position in the church.  For we are all alike.  And no one can be saved, can be justified, by keeping the law, because no one is able to keep it. 

Romans 3:9 says, “Both Jews and Greeks . . . they are all under sin.”

Romans 3:10, “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.”

Romans 3:19 teaches that the mouth of everyone under the law will be stopped “and all the world becomes guilty before God.”

Romans 3:20, “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Romans 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”

The letter to the Romans is very clear:  Our works can not be counted towards our justification, because we don’t have works that God could credit to us in order to declare us righteous.  We could never do it.  We have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and are still inclined to all evil.  God demands perfect obedience, whereas of ourselves we can do nothing good.  When the Bible says “There is none righteous, no, not one” it means just that:  we are all just as guilty.  Our conscience accuses us that we are still inclined to all evil.  We can do nothing of ourselves in order to be justified and received once more into God’s favour.

It all has to come from outside of ourselves.  It all has to come from Christ.  As the Catechism puts it in answer 60, although I am guilty, “yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.”  He takes Christ’s obedience and He credits it to me.  He then looks at me “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 basis of our righteousness before God, and so the basis of our justification is not how well we keep the law or even how well we keep our covenant obligations.  Rather, it is the imputed righteousness of Christ.  Through Christ’s work alone God is satisfied that my sins have been paid for.  Through Christ’s work alone God sees me as righteous.  And through Christ’s work alone, God sees me as holy.  And it is only through Christ that God sees me in this way.  He grants these things to me as if I had done it all.  I am inclined to all evil, but God sees me as if I had never sinned.  And that’s another way to describe justification:  it is just-as-if I’d never sinned!  And it is all of Christ from beginning to end.

2. Sinners are declared righteous through faith alone.

When we read of the Philippian Jailer asking Paul and Silas in Acts 16, “What must I do to be saved?” we can almost hear the guilt and the fear in his voice.  He also had been involved in the ill treatment of Paul and Silas, and he was the one who had locked them in the inner prison and put their feet in stocks.  But now when he comes to them, he is not afraid of Paul and Silas, but of the God whom they served.

“What must I do to be saved?”  It is the question that we all ask.  Our conscience accuses us that we have not kept any of God’s commandments and are still inclined to all evil.  We know we are guilty and we feel it.  But now what?  What do I have to do?

But Paul and Silas’ response was effectively this:   in order to be saved and so made acceptable to God, you don’t have to do anything.  It has already been done for you.  The only thing that is left for you to do is to accept what Christ has done, and to do so by a true faith.

That is the only way.  For nothing that we do could stand before God’s judgment and be counted towards our justification.  The simple truth of justification is this:  God declares us righteous only on the basis of the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ.  There is nothing that we can do, or even have  to do in order to add to the saving work of Jesus Christ.  All we need to do in order to enjoy what Christ has obtained for us is to humbly accept this gift of justification with a believing heart.

Lord’s Day 23 teaches us that the righteousness obtained for us through the obedience of Christ is ours only by a true faith.  These words bring us back to Lord’s Day 7.  Lord’s Day 7 asked who would be saved, and gave the answer “only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all His benefits.”  The contents of that true faith was then explained through the Apostles’ Creed and now in Lord’s Day 23 we confess that believing these promises of the Gospel is the only ground for us to be declared right before God, to be justified.

But what role does this faith play? 

Many Christians say that while salvation is God’s work, faith is man’s work.  They believe that since we can not do good, God has lowered His demand of us and now accepts faith in the place of obedience to God’s commandments.  So then what we have to do is to believe, and when God sees that faith, He is pleased.

But that is not so, answer 61 of our Catechism says.  We can not be acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of our faith.  If that was the case, we’d be heading straight back to our doubts and our fears, for then we’d wonder if our faith was good enough and strong enough.  Our faith is not some sort of a work that God rewards with eternal life, for our faith itself is not a work, but a gift from God.  Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”  That is also what Lord’s Day 7 teaches:  “This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”  It is not our faith that makes us acceptable to God, but what our faith is in – the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.

But some also explain faith in another way.  They say that faith is really the same as obedience.  “A saving faith is an obedient faith,” they say, “and therefore faith is the same as faithfulness.  Faith and works are essentially the same thing.” 

But what does Romans 3:28 teach us?  “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”  (And those deeds of the law, by the way, are all deeds of the law, and not just deeds of Jewish ceremonial law.)  Faith is not the same as obedience to the law.  God does not justify us or save us on account of the worthiness of our faith.  He justifies us because of what we place our faith in, and that is the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Faith simply joins us to the righteousness of Christ, and it is through faith that this righteousness is imputed to us.  Article 35 of the Belgic Confession calls faith “the hand and mouth of the soul.”  It is the way in which we receive the object of our faith, Jesus Christ.  Faith is simply saying “Yes” and “Amen” to the gospel.  The gospel proclaims the free grace of God and faith says, “Yes, I believe it.  It is for me too.  Jesus Christ has made everything right between God and me.”

And that’s all there is to it.  Sinners are declared righteous through faith alone in the work of Christ alone.  We can not and we may not change this clear doctrine from Scripture by adding our works or our faithfulness to this doctrine.  Of course we do works (and we will see that further next week) but not in order to be made righteous or so that our works might count to our ongoing righteousness before God.  Works are a necessary fruit of justification, but the are not a part of justification.

It is only faith in what Christ has done for us and imputed to us that can take the guilt away.  That is what enables us to believe that in spite of our sin, we can be declared righteous before God.  True faith is a sure confidence that God has granted me forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation out of mere grace only for the sake of Christ’s merits.  That’s our confession.  That’s the gospel of how sinners can be declared righteous.  Let’s not add to the gospel or change it so that our justification somehow becomes dependent what we must do.  It has all been done for us in Christ alone.  Receive this gift by faith alone, accepting that God has granted this to you by grace alone.

3. Sinners are declared righteous by grace alone.

The reason for guilt is that we know that we have done wrong.  Our conscience accuses for we know that by nature we are sinners and nothing we do in and of ourselves is good enough to stand up to God’s holy standard of righteousness.  If even a small dot was left for us to do, none of us could be declared righteous in God’s sight.

But the good news is that none of it is up to us.  Our righteousness before God is not due in any way to merit of our own.  God clothes us with the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ and thus declares us righteous out of mere grace.  Grace is the free and undeserved favour that God shows us.  Grace confesses that there was nothing in us that caused God to take a second look and decide to save us.  As it says in Romans 3:24, we are  “…justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Our righteousness is in no way a payment for something that was good in us, nor is it a reward for a life of obedience.  Our righteousness is granted to us because of God’s free and undeserved favour. 

And that makes us humble.  We are humbled before God, knowing that he receives us not because of what we have done or are presently doing, but that He receives us as acceptable in His sight because in His grace he chooses not to see us as wretched sinners, but as His children, clothed in the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ.

It also makes us humble with one another.  We no longer look over our shoulders at our brothers and sisters with condemnation and a feeling of being better or somehow more worthy.  Instead we call them to drink of the same fountain that we have drunk from and to seek their cleansing and salvation outside of themselves and in Jesus Christ.

And then we will have a message of hope not just for ourselves but for all those who are weighed down with the burden of guilt and sin and shame.  We do not tell them that their condition is not so bad after all; for it is worse than we could even imagine.  We do not tell them that it does not matter if they wilfully keep on sinning; for then we would be despising the sacrifice of Christ and insulting the Spirit of grace.  (Hebrews 10:29)  We do not encourage them to drown out the voice of conscience with noise or amusements or with being busy.  Rather, we point them to the only way to have that guilt covered over and that is by being clothed with the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ.  And when we by true faith accept Christ and all His benefits, when God sees us, He does not see us in our sins and weaknesses but He sees us as righteous and holy.  That frees us from the burden of guilt.  For then we no longer need to punish ourselves, nor do we expect God to take vengeance on us for our past sins.  Although we may suffer the consequences from the sins of our past, the guilt of those sins is removed as far as East is from West.  For in Christ we are declared righteous, by God’s free grace and favour.

The gospel is that sinners are declared righteous.  Therefore take that gospel with both hands and live in the freedom that this gospel offers you!  Stop listening to those voices of self loathing and condemnation, those voices that tell you that you are worthless and you’ll never make the grade.  Stop wallowing in your failures and moping about how hopeless the situation is.  Quit taking those guilt trips that drive you away from the cross and to the depths of despair.  Rather, take the Gospel with both hands, believe it and live it!  Look to Jesus and accept what He has done for you with a believing heart.  And you will be righteous and an heir to life everlasting.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2010, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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