‘Justification by faith’
And at the heart of the Reformation was the teaching of justification. And at the centre of this teaching of justification is our text, from Romans 3.
Justification is about how I can be made right
with God. It’s a legal, forensic picture; as I stand before the judgment seat of God, And the focus of the Reformation was to make clear that this can never happen by our own strength or anything we do, but we are freely justified – declared to be righteous – before God, because of Jesus Christ. Justification is by grace through faith.
But now, over 500 years on from the Reformation, some people may ask, is the Christian teaching of justification still relevant to modern people?
Some don’t think it is.Some people say that people today don’t resonate with this legal and forensic language of St Paul that affected Luther so profoundly, and so although it was important back then, it’s not for today. But that is dead wrong.
People today are looking to be justified just as much as they were in the first century and the 16th century. We human beings in fact spend a whole lot of time and energy in life in just this endeavour, trying to justify ourselves, our lives, our actions, to ourselves, to others, and at some deeper level, before God.
This came home to the writer of this sermon when he was saw a big bumper sticker across the back of someone’s car which read, ‘justify your existence’. That is essentially the exact opposite to the Christian teaching we hear today. But the very fact that people have “justify your existence” , not just as a sticker on their cars, but even tattooed on their bodies, tells me that this message of justification is one that people need to hear just as much today as ever before. So let’s see what we learn about justification by faith in Jesus Christ from our text today. Let’s see its need, its source and its effect.
THE NEED FOR JUSTIFICATION
So first is the need for justification. It’s summed up by Paul in these famous words,
‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.
The problem is that in the cosmic courtroom of God’s justice, every single human being stands guilty and condemned, and has no way of doing anything to justify themselves.
This is the problem. And our text begins with the culmination of an argument St Paul has been making along these lines for about 2 and a half chapters. Acting Like a prosecuting attorney, St Paul has laid out his case. Whether you are a Jew who knows God’s law and doesn’t keep it, or whether you’re a Gentile who has never heard of the Ten Commandments; or maybe you know the glory of God in creation, and are aware of the law written on your heart: no matter who you are, you have not worshiped God as you should, and you have not lived as he would have you live. That leaves us standing alone in front of God, guilty and condemned.
It all crescendos at the start of our text where Paul says that this all means ‘every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God’. ‘Every mouth may be silenced’.
Kids are good at making excuses, aren’t they? You confront them about something and they are very quick to blame their brother or sister. Or it was the kids next door. It wasn’t really their fault, it was the tigers hiding in the backyard that made the mess! There’s almost always an excuse. But then every now and then, you catch them out don’t you? You have all the evidence and all the excuses covered, You ask them in detail about whether it was them that broke the jar because they were climbing the shelves wanting to get to the biscuits, and they just look at you in stunned silence. They have nothing to say. They are speechless before this indisputable evidence and accusation. Their mouth have been silenced.
That’s the picture of you and me left on our own before Almighty God. There is nothing to say, no excuse we can make, no defence worth mounting. We are guilty and condemned and there is nothing in our own strength that we can do about it. That was the problem 2000 years ago, 500 years ago, and it’s still the problem today.
THE CHARACTER AND SOURCE OF JUSTIFICATION
But thank God it’s not the end of the story. Because now we come to what justification actually is; where it comes from; its source. Rather than having to do it ourselves, to make things right with God by our own strength and lives, rather than having to justify our existence, God’s does it for us.
We are ‘justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’.
The source of our justification is Jesus Christ and what he does for us on the cross. On our own we stand guilty and condemned before God. The wonder is that God himself makes us right with him by a sheer act of grace and mercy which we receive by trusting in it. It comes through faith. But how does God do this? What sort of judge is this and what sort of court is this where the judge simply declared guilty people to be innocent? If that’s what God does for no apparent reason, there’s a big problem, because God would no longer be just.
But this is why it’s so important for us to never lose sight of the fact that we are justified before God on the basis of Jesus’ shed blood for us on the cross. When God declares us righteous in his sight, this is no kangaroo court where the judge change his verdict on a whim. This is not just God letting us off the hook because he’s in a good mood. This is no legal fiction. Jesus lived the life of perfect righteousness, and he died the death you and I deserved. It’s because of what he has done that God declares us righteous.
‘God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that in him, we may become the righteousness of God’.
This is how marvellously God is both the just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. Now notice here too how St Paul is piling up the different images to try and get at the true wonder of what Jesus does on the cross. He moves from the legal picture of justification, that we declared righteous because of the death of Jesus, to the slave market picture of redemption: that we are bought back from slavery because of death of Jesus: and then to the picture of the temple where Christ is a sacrifice of atonement. All of that pointed forward to Jesus’ once for all sacrifice, where his blood covers our sin and guilt, so that we can be righteous in God’s sight.
In 2008, there was a terrible terrorist attack at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, India where 200 people were killed. Afterward a reporter interviewed a survivor who had been at the hotel for dinner that night, who had been pulled under a table by a friend when they heard gunshots. The terrorists had come striding through the restaurant systematically shooting, thinking they had killed everyone. Miraculously, this man had survived. When the interviewer asked the guest how he lived when everyone else around him had not, he replied in a very memorable way. He said, “All I can think is that when the terrorists looked at me I was covered in someone else’s blood, and they took me for dead.”
Covered in the blood of another. That’s what the death of Jesus accomplishes and that is source of our justification before God.
It’s a gift to us,
Not something we earn,
We receive it in faith.
You do not need to justify your existence. In Jesus Christ God has done it for you. And that is still as relevant for us today as it ever has been.
THE EFFECT OF JUSTIFICATION
So we’ve looked at why we need this justification, what it is and where it comes from. Then finally we ask, what is its effect?
What does it change practically in our lives?
There are many different ways to answer this question. Our Gospel reason points us to the freedom this means for us. Since we are declared righteous in God’s sight, we do not have to spend our lives trying to justify ourselves to ourselves or others and most especially God, we are free.
Have you ever seen a broadcast of a big court case when someone who feared a guilty verdict and sentence is declared innocent and free? The utter relief and joy on their faces, people weeping and hugging each other, This freedom we have from condemnation because we justified by grace through faith in Christ, has a profound effect in our lives.
Another way St Paul describes this effect is having peace with God, and having access to his grace. But actually here in our text, interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, these are not so much in focus. The effect of our being justified here is seemingly much more mundane and everyday. The effect is that boasting is excluded. What’s fascinating here is that this teaching on justification which seems so focused on our relationship with God, the vertical dimension if you like, for St Paul has an immediate application to how we live with each other, an immediate horizontal dimension too. What seems to be in focus here is the whole Jew and Gentile dynamic in the early church. So Paul is driving home that it does not matter who you are, all have sinned. All are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone. To be justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, is to lead to humility, not boasting. And this is worth us thinking about again as we celebrate the Reformation. However we celebrate, in whatever ways we commemorate the Reformation, any boasting in ourselves or our tradition or our denomination is completely excluded.
Again this is still as relevant today as ever. Our pride and boasting still damages our relationships, damages our Christian community, and does not make for a winsome witness to the Gospel. So may this wonderful truth of God’s justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, drive out from us all boasting.
As Paul writes elsewhere,
‘Christ Jesus has become to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”‘
Despite the Reformation, we still all fall short of the glory of God.
Therefore we rejoice that God has sent his Son to die for us, so that in him we can be justified and righteous in his sight. This will remove our pride and boasting and lead us to humility and love for our brothers and sisters whoever they are.
And all of this is still as relevant today as it ever has been.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.