Big Words of the Faith: Justification
I have an outline available again this morning. If you don’t have one, raise your hand. There are several people around who will make sure you get one.
If you have been here the past several weeks, you know that we are in the midst of studying some of the “big words of the faith.” Don’t worry, it’s perfectly OK to join us in the middle. This sermon series isn’t like the TV show “Lost.” You don’t have to watch from the very beginning to understand what in the world is going on.
Two weeks ago, we started by looking at the word “predestination.” Last week, our word was “covenant.” This week, our big word of the faith is “justification.”
Justification just might be the biggest of these big words. Martin Luther called justification “the cornerstone of Christianity.” More recently, the Christian author J.I. Packer said that any church that has forgotten about justification by faith can scarcely be called a Christian church.
So, turn with me to the book of Romans, chapter 4. Romans is the first letter in the New Testament, after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the book of Acts. If you are using a pew Bible, you should find our passage on page 1751.
Paul spends two-and-a-half chapters in this book on this big word of the faith, justification. Starting at verse 21 of Chapter 3 and going all the way to the end of Chapter 5, Paul lays out his argument that salvation is available to everyone, Jew or Gentile, in the same way. In these chapters he tells us that every Christian is justified by grace through faith—apart from works, apart from the law, and apart from one’s status as a Jew. Romans 4 is the centerpiece of that argument, and he focuses on the example of Abraham to make his point.
So follow along as I read from Romans 4. And keep your Bible open—after spending a little time defining justification, we will work verse by verse through the chapter to understand what Paul wants us to understand about this big word of the faith.
The word of the Lord from Romans 4:
II. What is justification?
So what is this big word of the faith—a word so important that without it we can hardly call ourselves Christian? What is justification?
Let’s start by defining it. Louis Berkhof, a 20th century theologian defined justification as “that legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” “That legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.”
Justification is the process by which the perfect life of Jesus—his active obedience and sinlessness—is credited to us. This happens, despite our sinfulness, because Jesus agreed to fulfill the condition in God’s promise that we obey him. It isn’t our obedience that counts, since we can’t obey; it is Christ’s obedience on our behalf.
Our legal standing before God has changed. Instead of being outside of the covenant, condemned to death and eternal separation from God, we are instead declared righteous. We can stand before God and claim the benefits of his covenant—his promise that we can live forever in loving fellowship with God.
Some Christians confuse justification, this one-time declaration of righteousness, with the gradual process of sanctification—the process of becoming more and more like Christ. Justification is a single act, not an ongoing process. We have been declared righteous once and for all because Jesus has taken on our sins and given us his perfection. We aren’t justified before God because we become more and more holy through the Spirit’s work. No, we are able to become more and more holy because we have been justified, declared righteous before God.
So now, let’s take a look at Romans 4.
III. Justification comes by grace
Paul wants his readers to know that justification comes by grace. God’s people are not justified by our works. We don’t stand in a right relationship with God because of the law. And the Jews cannot say that they are justified simply by virtue of being Jewish. It is only by grace, through faith, that anyone is justified.
A. Not by works
Paul starts proving that justification is by grace, by showing that justification is not by works. To do that, he points to Abraham. In verse 1, Paul asks: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”
Many Jews in Paul’s day believed that Abraham was justified because of his own righteousness. They looked back at Abraham as being as close to perfect as any human could be. But Paul points out that if Abraham was justified by his good works, then he’d be able to boast in his good works, even before God.
But even the Jewish rabbis of Paul’s day who believed that Abraham was justified by his good works understood that the very idea of a sinner boasting before God is an absurdity. Listen to how Paul puts it in verse 2: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.”
Paul writes this to show us the impossibility of claiming to have right standing before God because of our own obedience. Earlier in chapter 3 of Romans, Paul quoted Psalm 14 to show that “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Not even Abraham.
Next, in verse three, Paul points us back to Genesis 15:6. “What does the Scripture say?” Paul asks. “‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’”
This verse from Genesis flies in the face of the view that Abraham was justified by his works. There is no mention of any good works of Abraham in this verse. In fact, nowhere in Genesis 15 does it suggest that Abraham did anything to earn justification. “Abraham believed God.” That’s all. And that belief “was credited to him as righteousness.” Credited as a gift, not as something he had coming to him.
Paul expounds on this in verses 4 and 5. “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Abraham did not earn justification by his works. Nor do we. Justification is a gift. Our faith is credited to us as righteousness, even though that very faith comes as a gift from God. This is even clearer on this in Ephesians 2:8, where Paul proclaims: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”
In verses 6-8, Paul points out that David, another hero of the faith, agrees that justification comes by faith, not by works. Starting at verse 6: “David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Paul then quotes Psalm 32. “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”
In English, we use the word “count” in that last sentence: “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” But in Greek, the word “count” is the exact same word that Paul uses in verse five for “credited” when he says of the faithful Christian “his faith is credited as righteousness.” Paul reiterates for us that our faith is credited as a gift, not as something we are owed. Justification is not by works.
B. Not by status
Paul next turns to the argument that justification is limited to the Jews, because of their special status as God’s people. Justification is not by status.
Listen to what Paul says in verses 9 and 10: He starts by asking “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” Paul then goes on to recap his discussion of justification as being credited as a gift, not as something earned. “We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness.”
Then he asks “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!”
What Paul is doing is refuting the argument that justification is only for the Jews, those who possessed the sign and the seal of God’s covenant—circumcision.
All we have to do is read through Genesis to we see that while Abraham believes God’s promise in Genesis 15, it takes at least 13 years, and maybe more, until we get to Genesis 17 where Abraham is circumcised. Abraham’s justification came far before he received the sign and seal of God’s promise.
Since Abraham was not circumcised when he was justified, Paul says, Abraham is really the spiritual father of all of us, Jew and Greek. In verse 11 Paul says, “[Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” And this leads to verse 12. “And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” In other words, we cannot be justified simply by our status. We are justified by grace, and only through the gracious gift of faith.
C. Not by law
In just a moment, Paul is going to turn to a discussion of faith, and its role in our justification. But he makes one last point to show that justification is by grace. Because justification does not come to us by works, it also cannot come to us by the law. Justification is not by law.
Listen to what Paul says in verses 13-15. “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.”
If justification were dependent on our obedience to law, there would be no need for faith. We could be justified solely by our own act of obeying the law, regardless of whether we actually believed. And of course, we already know that we can’t obey the law anyway—Paul has already shown us that. It is only our faith, given as a free gift, that provides us a way to be justified before God.
We cannot stand before God and be declared righteous before His throne because of anything about ourselves. “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” Justification is by grace alone.
D. Justification comes through faith
So, having shown that justification is by grace alone, Paul, in the next section of our text, shows the importance of faith. Justification comes through faith.
Here is what Paul says in verse 16. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”
To some extent, Paul is just reiterating what he explained already. When we are justified through faith, this is by grace, since faith is a gift. But not only that, since we receive this gift by faith—the deep-rooted assurance that God has acted on our behalf, as opposed to our doing anything ourselves—this gift is available to all who have faith, whether Jew or Gentile. After all, God made Abraham “a father of many nations.” And he gives “life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
God gives life to the dead. He showed this in the new life that came from the dead womb of Sarah. He showed this by giving Isaac’s life back in Genesis 22, when Abraham offered him to God as a sacrifice. And he shows this in the life of Jesus Christ, who though he died, was resurrected. What’s more, God also gave life to us. We were once dead in our sins. But now, because of the faith we receive by grace, we are made alive with Christ.
That new life begins with our being regenerated, being born again and receiving a new heart. With that new heart in us we are converted, able to repent of our sins and have faith in Jesus Christ and his saving work for us. And through that faith, we are justified—our legal standing before God is changed. Instead of being outside of the covenant, condemned to death, we can stand before God able to claim the benefits of the covenant—eternal life in fellowship with our loving God.
IV. What this means for us
We are justified—God has declared us righteous solely on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. And that righteousness is a gift of grace, a gift we receive through faith.
So what does this mean for us? What are the implications of justification by grace through faith? Let’s look at three. First, because of this gift we can have faith “against all hope.” Second, that sure assurance must lead us to give all of the glory to God. And finally, justification points us back to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.
A. We can have faith “against all hope.”
So, first, we can have faith “against all hope.” Paul talks about Abraham having this kind of faith in verses 18-20: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith...”
Humanly speaking, Abraham’s faith in God’s promise was against all hope. Who could believe that Sarah would bear him a child at age 90? Certainly, Abraham’s faith was strong, but that strength didn’t come from within himself. It came because of who he believed in. All that mattered was the object of Abraham’s faith, the God who freely gives righteousness to sinners who believe his words.
We have faith in the same God as Abraham. And that means we, too, can have faith “against all hope.” As one commentator noted, “faith is not a blind leap in the dark, contrary to all reason and common sense.” Rather, our faith looks forward with the same kind of hope that Abraham had. We know that God is faithful; we know that God “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
We are heirs of God’s promise, so not even death can lay claim to us. We look forward to the day when God will raise our bodies from the dead on the day of resurrection, and we will be able to live in perfect relationship with our God for all eternity. We have faith, against any human hope, that we will live forever, free from the bonds of death.
B. Our faith must lead us to give all glory to God.
And because we have this faith “against all hope,” our faith must lead us to give all glory to God.
Look again at verses 20 and 21 of our text. “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”
Giving glory to God is a hallmark of faith. God created the world as a way of showing his glory. He graciously promised us eternal life with him as a way of showing his glory. And, despite our sin, he has provided a way for us to be made right with Him, to be declared righteous despite our sin. This also he does for his glory. Having been declared righteous before God, it should be our desire to give all the glory to God, to display his greatness in everything we do. Our faith must lead us to give all glory to God.
C. Our faith points us back to the cross of Christ
Finally, our faith points us back to the cross of Christ. If we truly believe that we have been justified, we cannot help but focus on the cross of Christ, on the sacrifice he made for us, and the perfect righteousness that he has given to us.
Even if you are not a baseball fan, you’ve certainly heard of Barry Bonds. On August 7, 2007, Bonds hit home run number 756, the home run that broke Hank Aaron’s record. Most of the talk about the record, though, is whether it really should count, because Bonds is alleged to have used steroids. Many sports buffs say if his name goes in the record book it should be accompanied by an asterisk. The asterisk means the record is tainted. In fact, the man who bought the ball that Bonds hit to set the record branded it with an asterisk before donating it to the baseball Hall of Fame.
Scripture talks about a different kind of record book—the Book of Life. The name of each believer is recorded in this record book. With all the sins we have committed, you’d think that each of us should have an asterisk by our name in this record book. But because we of Jesus Christ’s perfect life on this earth and his redeeming work on the cross, there is no asterisk by our names.
God has done all he promised. As Paul tells us in the last verses of our text, “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”
Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification. Our faith convinces us of that. Our faith points us back to the cross of Christ.
Justification is “that legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” We are justified by grace, completely undeserved. And justification comes to us through the gift of faith, faith that allows us to claim the benefits of being declared righteous.
Because of our justification, we, like Abraham, can have a faith against all hope that we will live eternally with our glorious God. And that faith leads us to ascribe all of the glory and to turn our eyes toward the cross of our anointed King, Jesus Christ, who is the reason for our faith.