Sermon May 24, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
We continue this morning our series on Reformed Theology, and we’re going to stay in Romans. There are many passages that I could have chosen to read in support of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but we will stay in Romans. Last week, and for the next two weeks we will look at Romans 8, that wonderful pillar of a chapter. I said last week that chapter 8 was a mountaintop because it was in many ways a summary, the conclusion of all of the chapters that came before, but like mountain ranges, we know that there are usually many layers, and so there are similar ridges earlier on in the book. So we’re going to back up to Romans 5, an earlier ridge in the mountain range where Paul concludes his argument about the process of justification. Romans 5, we’ll read the first 11 verses. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The Word of the Lord.
This doctrine of Justification by Faith, Sola fide, is of paramount importance. The reformers talked of it as the most important of all of the doctrines. Luther said as much several times, saying it was “the article with and by which the church stands, without which it falls.” Without this doctrine, faith alone, the church falls. He also said “This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone…without it, the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”
Or basically, a church that does not believe this doctrine is not a real church, is a false church. That should prick our ears up a little, to hear something so cut and dry, of such importance, that is shared by all evangelical Protestant denominations. This doctrine, that it is only by faith that we are saved. We’ve been examining foundations behind this point for a few weeks now. First, we recognized that as we are sinners, we are incapable of doing works that are actually good, that would merit us anything in the sight of God. That leaves us in a completely helpless situation, right? If we are to be saved, we are entirely reliant on God for grace to accomplish that rescuing, that saving. And then last week we looked at how God chose to accomplish that saving, through the sacrifice and the obedience of his Son, Jesus Christ. Both things, both his sacrifice of his life to pay the debt to God incurred by our sins, but also the obedience, the robe of Christ’s perfect record of obedience that becomes ours. So now we come back and we ask the big question once again: how is a sinner made right with God? How is one justified? We know that it is because of God’s grace, we know that it is through the work of Christ, but what is the instrument? What is the cause of that grace being bestowed on an individual? Well, it’s really all right there in the first verse of Romans 5, isn’t it? I’ll read it again:
Therefore, since we have been justified – stop there, we have been justified—what reality is that speaking about? When we are justified, we are deemed righteous, God looks at us and declares us righteous. Paul is saying that we, Christians, have been justified. How did that happen
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith – there’s the instrument! It is by faith that we are justified. Faith is the instrument by which this transaction takes place, the giving of our sins to Christ and his record being made ours in the sight of God. And what is the result of that condition, our being justified? Read on -
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Faith is the instrument which God gives us to be justified. That’s big point #1: That it is by faith that we are made right with God, faith and nothing more. We are justified by nothing else but faith, and faith alone. We’ve talked about this previously, how there are only two ways that one can be saved, either by completely and perfectly fulfilling the law (which is by works), or by faith in Jesus Christ. There is no salvation that is obtained that is a combination of those two things. When we spoke of grace, we mentioned that it is not your record that gets you so far and then grace makes up the difference, gets you over the top, no, it is entirely a grace, a gift of God. Two paths, works (which doesn’t work), or Christ. Anyone trying to justify themselves on the basis of works will face judgement.
Now this was in contrast, and actually still is in stark contrast to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Both the Catholics and the Reformers would agree that God cannot declare someone righteous, cannot declare them just, unless they are actually just. If God simply forgave sins with no payment, that would not satisfy his justice. Neither would it be just for him to declare someone still stained with sin to be righteous. The Reformers and the Catholic Church agreed on that. But there is a fundamental distinction between how the sinner becomes righteous so that God declares him just. The Roman church teaches that you are justified when you are baptized, because that sacrament, at that moment, washes away your original sin, leaving you in a state of grace, and infuses some of Christ’s grace into you. Following that moment, for the rest of your life, it is your responsibility to cooperate with that grace and thus build a record of merit that God will look on favorably. Christ gets you to a clean slate, and then you work with him, through sacraments, particularly of penance, to build a record of righteousness so that you are actually a righteous person when you come to God. Through the sacraments, you can keep cleansing yourself after you sin with little infusions of grace.
Because that is what the Catholic Church taught and still teaches, it places an enormous amount of weight on sacraments, because your justification is constantly at risk as you sin, confess, do penance, sin confess, do penance. And it caused them to also categorize sins as mortal or venial. The venial sins are little things, you certainly don’t want them on your record, but they don’t take away your justification. The mortal sins, the really bad ones, with those you actually lose your salvation and have to do more penance to get it back.
This extremely complicated view of sin, grace, and the sacraments also lead to the idea of purgatory, because you had to have some solution for the people who died with little things on their record, some venial sins. So the Roman Church invented purgatory, where souls are purged of those little sins before they actually go to heaven, because if they aren’t, they won’t be able to be declared righteous. It’s a terribly complicated collection of teachings.
So in summary, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that you are justified by faith in cooperation with works, but that misrepresents what God so clearly lays out, particularly through the letters of Paul. Back to our first verse here:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul doesn’t say we hope to be justified, he says we have been. He doesn’t say that we will some day have peace with God, he says that we do. Anything less is not the gospel, because it is not good news. Any gospel that says you are saved if you do x, y, and z—that’s not good news. The only “if” is if you are in Christ.
Galatians 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
No merit that comes from us, even the works that we do following our justification are a work of Christ in us to bring him further glory, not to build merit in us! We’ll address works a little later.
So point #1: It is faith alone that justifies us, because it is through faith, by faith that we are brought into right relationship with God. Which brings us to the second point, which is a logical extension of that truth, that faith is a gift. Because merit, because work has nothing to do with it, all faith that we have is a gift of God.
We’ll back up to chapter 3, a passage we know well:
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
There it is, our justification, which comes through faith, is a gift. All the gospel, right there. God put Jesus forward as a propitiation for our sins—the propitiation, or the satisfaction for God’s wrath toward us—Jesus bought our justification, and it is received by faith. And a few verses later, Paul levels the playing field once again, saying there is no room for boasting, not at all, because there is no merit that comes from you at work in your justification, verse 27:
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one (everyone and anyone!) is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
And just in case in our minds we want to make a case for ourselves still, through our heritage or something, Paul once again levels the playing field between Jews and Gentiles, verse 29:
29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
So faith is the instrumental cause of your justification, of your being made right with God, and it comes to you as a gift. But God doesn’t stop there—the gifts keep flowing, because he loves his people, and because of that, we see that Faith also produces works.
Let’s revisit our original text for today, we spent all that time discussing verse 1, but Paul goes on to say, verse 2:
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (and then here are the works) 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
There is no such thing as a justifying faith that does not also lead to sanctification and good works. There isn’t! Faith produces works, and it always produces works. This is a tricky part of the doctrine, and another where if we allow the old self to influence our view, we get it wrong. Are we at all saved, even a tiny bit, by the good works that we do while under grace? We are not, it is only the record of Christ that saves, but what are these works then? They are an evidence of our growing in faith, our sanctification, and they give us confidence and assurance of our salvation. Justification and sanctification go hand in hand, and the follower of Christ will always have works showing his or her faith. But this is where it gets tricky. As I said before, we are all going to stand before the Father one day, and we are either going to be judged on works, on merit, or we will be judged on Christ’s merit, not a combination of the two.
So what is the real relationship between faith and works? We come to a passage that has been used to justify some sort of works-based, or at least works-helped righteousness.
James 2:17: So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:24: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Is this a real contradiction? Paul says that it is by faith alone, James says by works and not by faith alone—what’s going on here? Well, out of context, it appears they are saying the opposite, but what James is really saying, meaning in this passage is that there is no such thing as a faith that has no works. Faith will always produce works. And in that way, he’s absolutely right in saying that a faith without works is dead. Remember a few weeks ago when I preached on the cursing of the fig tree, I believe that was our first week of “online” home worship. Jesus went to the healthy-looking fig tree and it had no fruit, and he cursed it. Allegorically, it had works, but no real faith producing the works. These two things go together, always. That is why there is no such thing as a carnal Christian. A person who once prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at some point, or responded to an altar call, if that public show of faith doesn’t result in a changed life, in works, it is evident that there never was any real faith to begin with.
What this comes down to is that real faith, the faith that justifies, is not just a logical assent to some beliefs. You can listen to all of these sermons on biblical theology, nod your head, and even fully understand and believe the content conceptually, and not be saved. James makes the point in chapter 2, right between the two passages I read, in this same discourse about faith and works. He says, verse 18:
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
Faith is more than an assent to a list of concepts. Even the demons believe God is God. What is the difference? They have no faith that Jesus Christ is their Savior, so instead they shudder. Knowledge is not enough, the Holy Spirit needs to drag that theology from your head to your heart. And when that happens, works will be the evidence. Do you see how this is entirely a work of God? You can’t open your own eyes. You can’t reverse-engineer faith, and try to come to greater faith by working harder to do works. The works God is working in you are a comfort to you, which is why you would rejoice in suffering and gain endurance, which leads to character, which leads to hope. Which brings us to our final point:
Justification comes only through faith, faith comes to us as a gift, and faith produces works, and finally, faith gives us hope.
Galatians 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
We are called to live our lives by faith, in the knowledge that God is working in us and will keep all of the promises that he has made. Another famous passage that defines faith for us, the opening of the great “Faith” chapter, Hebrews 11:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
I love to study history. If I get the chance to read for pleasure, it’s usually a biography or some other book on history. One of the things that intrigues me is how unbelievably complex the story of history is, how many people have lived and died and all been part of this drama. I think that’s the reason we love to go places and stand where we know something pivotal happened, or where someone we’ll never meet also once stood. There are things that we are doing now that we will never get to see the results of, we won’t receive promises that we’ve been given while we’re in this life. Which is why we shouldn’t give this life more weight or worry than it deserves. We can have faith that God keeps his promises, we can have assurance of the things we hope for, we can be convinced of things that we don’t see. That’s the beauty that the author of Hebrews is celebrating as he goes through all of the faithfulness of God shown in the faith of Christians throughout history.
He goes on: By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Faith in creation. He continues talking about the faith of Abel, of Enoch, of Noah. He talks of the faith of Abraham. In verse 13 he talks of the hope that their faith produced:
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
He goes on, saying that it was faith that strengthened all of these that came before us, and that should strengthen our faith as well. In the end he says
39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Meaning that we will all be together some day, we will all arrive at the great banquet together. There may be times when we feel our faith shaken, where we feel overcome with worry or fear, but God gives us faith to give us hope, to rest in his promises, and he has promised that we will be with him in glory. Remember that faith is only as good as the thing in which the faith is placed. Money, pleasure, health? All fleeting. Place your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and on the promises of God, because that is the only place where real hope lies. Father, judge me not on my works, but Christ’s. And after giving me the saving faith that justifies me, help me to grow in that faith, in confidence that produces good works and hope in the future. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for the free gift of grace that we have been given, by faith. We know that once given it is a gift that will never leave, but help us to grow, to work out our faith with fear and trembling, as Christ works his will in us. Pour out your faith on all of us this morning, that we may have confidence to come before the throne and be judged righteous in your eyes. In Jesus’s name, amen.