On Tuesday, October 31 the church celebrates the 500th year since the Protestant Reformation. October 31, 1517 marks when Martin Luther, the Augustinian Monk dared to confront the Roman Catholic Church and its abuses. History tells that Martin Luther penned a document known as the 95 Theses on the castle door at Wittenberg, documenting the RCC’s control by leveraging what they called indulgences as a way to bilk money from the commoners.
The offered people to stay in good graces as long as they paid. Pay to spring their loved ones from the fabled place known as purgatory. What Luther was confronting surprisingly wasn’t the RCC’s gospel but their idea of authority. Their authority was not grounded in the freedom of the gospel but within their power structure and control.
Luther himself had been trapped in this system of self-righteousness but through the illuminating work of the Spirit came clear on the final phrase of Romans 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith” Luther woke up. Up to this point, he had interpreted “righteousness” as “self-righteousness” something achieved through his religion of faith. But, suddenly in his cell, like a bolt of lightning he realized that “righteousness” wasn’t “self-righteousness” but “Christ’s righteousness” – not what he could ever achieve but what he could only be given.
In this light the gospel was now truly good news. Before now, God seemed to be playing a cruel joke dangling holiness out in front as a prize he wanted but can never have. And now holiness was the robe of righteousness given to the Prodigal Son. This was grace, true and free grace!
This recovery of the gospel is ours to rejoice in but its clarity in this historic recovery shouldn’t surprise us! Christ promised to build his church! (Matt. 16:18). At the same time, we are called to guard the gospel so all can benefit.
It appears to be no coincidence that we find ourselves in one of the most gospel rich passages in the New Testament on this historic Sunday. In our section, verses 15-21, the word justify is used 5 times! The doctrine is justification is the cornerstone of the gospel.
In fact, Luther is attributed as saying:
justificatio est articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae— “justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.”
With this in mind allow me to read verses 15-21. I will define the term justification within our text but the one thing more important than being able to define it is to actually have it.
And, there is only a single means by which you can have it. Faith! And Faith alone! So, Paul’s points all surround answering what it means to be justified by faith alone.
Prop: What it means to be justified by faith alone?
1. Faith alone means you died to privilege (vv. 15-16)
All my points follow the themes of death and life which Paul embeds in this paragraph. These are ultimate realities not answered by religious privilege. Paul continues his thought as if still dialoguing with Peter. “We ourselves are Jews by birth” referring to Peter and Paul being born and raised Jews. They had the privilege of the divinely inspired Word, God’s law, being God’s chosen people. They weren’t pagans. “Gentile sinners” is not a designation that they are worst sinners but that they were outside of truth. Gentiles have creation and a conscience, with the law written on their hearts but had no divine revelation to guide them to God and salvation.
Paul’s making the point that there is privilege in being raised in truth. This is the same privilege expressed in what we call Parent/Baby Dedication. 2 Corinthians 7:14 tells us children without a Christian influence in the home are considered “unclean” but with an influence are “holy.” Kids raised under a Christian testimony have the redemptive influence of prayers and Scripture in the home. Seeing God provide over and over again.
While others being raised Buddhist, or in animism or ritualism, or in New Age mysticism, or self-esteem do not.
Peter and Paul had the privilege but with this great privilege comes danger. The danger comes with what’s good is twisted into works righteousness. This happens to so many people in the church. Children raised without a clear handle on “faith-alone” become easy prey to legalism and unquenchable guilt. Kids learn about sin but don’t know what to do with it.
Take them to verse 16. Paul, like any good preacher says the principle that he’s trying to convey three different ways! First, he states the principle in general. Second, he makes it personal. Third, he broadens this into a universal application.
Paul still including Peter says, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law” (v. 16).
To get the full impact of what Paul’s defending, you have to understand what it means to be “justified” (v. 16). This word simply means “righteous” or to be “made righteous.” This is legal language, what was used for rulings by Old Testament judges.
When a guilty person is declared not guilty on the bases of someone else voluntarily being punished in his place. Justification also takes on the picture of accounting, being “reckoned righteous.” [Cross Ref] Paul picks up on this in chapter 3:6 (cf. Romans 4:3).
Galatians 3:6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
Referencing Abraham is important as he precedes the Law being written. Surely, his “righteousness” did not come from the Law-keeping! No, he’s the father of faith. He heard God said “Go! From the Ur of the Chaldeans” – “To the Promised Land.” And Abraham obeyed him. And based on his faith, God counted or reckoned as righteous.
This what Luther called “The Great Exchange!”
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.
Your sin debt onto Christ and Christ’s righteousness accounted to you. You are the Prodigal coming to your father saying, “I am not worthy to be called your son or even your slave.” Owing an unplayable sin debt. And then given the grace of his father saying:
Luke 15:22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.
Verse 16 pictures three ways, Paul is taking Peter by the hand saying, “so we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ” (v. 16). It’s as if Paul has to reiterate things saying, “…and not by works of the law” (v. 16). And then to seal it once and for all saying, “because by works of the law no one will be justified” (v. 16).
What Paul’s doing is elevating the distinction between what Peter did from true saving faith! A faith that brings saving grace. The faith that is faith alone!
2. Faith alone means you died to self-righteousness (vv. 17-18)
Again, Paul seems to be taking Peter to school. The language is straight forward. “But if we are seeking to be justified in Christ…” (v. 17). If we are trying to self-justify then we are “found…sinners” (v. 17). This is a sin! When you try to create your tower of Babel to God then you are sinning!
When people are racked with guilt, struggling with massive health problems or worry and anxiety the cause is their sin. When people do not know how to fall upon grace for help!
When people are by contrast hard hearted with arrogance and conceit believe they are fine while killing others around them, then this is what God declares as sin!
Paul goes on to ask, “is Christ then a servant of sin?” (v. 17). Meaning, does Christ administer this kind of “sin?” Is Christ part of this? Was Christ empowering Peter’s legalistic, destructive, and rogue behavior? Then Paul uses the most severe language to refute this idea. “Certainly not” – “mn gevoito” – “may it never be!”
In verse 18, Paul then personalizes this to himself in terms of a confession! What I love here is how dramatic Paul is with his faith. Paul as a former zealot, who has repudiated and condemned all of his “works righteousness” is saying, “If I rebuild what I tore down” I am guilty!
It’s easy to rebuild legalism not for ourselves but for others in our care. We have to be so careful not to do this for our children or disciples.
3. Faith alone means you are alive to God (v. 19)
Understanding the law in terms of its redeeming purpose while being a ministry of death is significant to understanding the gospel. Probably the best analogy for how the law is a divine revelation and gift from God while being a condemning standard is to see the law as a mirror. The law is God’s mirror to reveal to us our own sin. The law plays a role in our lives to show us we are imprisoned, unable to solve our sin problem in and of ourselves!
Skipping ahead to Galatians 3 explains this.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian (Gal 3:23-25 ESV)
This is where Paul calls the law a “tutor” or “guardian” – it’s what drives us to Christ.
You may have heard it said that you have to first use the law to show people they are dead in sin before you can lead them to a Savior who can make them alive!
This is exactly what Paul’s testimony is here! He’s saying that the law played, judge, jury, and executioner so that he could be free! How did Paul find the power of God? He had to first die as a convicted criminal, executed so his capital crimes now lay no claim on him. When you are saved (by grace through faith – By the Cross-Work of Christ, Not your Own-Works) then justice has been satisfied! This is so freeing! So, joy-filling! And this will be energizing!
4. Faith alone means you are empowered by Christ (v. 20)
The idea of being “crucified with Christ” (v. 20) means that when you trust Christ then you (in the mystery of God) retroactively participate with the Lord in his death on the cross and his resurrection. You say, this is impossible!
No more impossible than the fact that you are currently seated on the throne with Christ at God’s right hand (Ephesians 2:6). God transcends time and space, and by faith we can see and enjoy this reality!
“It is no longer I who live” (v. 20). What does this mean? Does this mean we have no more choices to made in terms of good and evil? No! This simply means that the power of sin no longer dominates your flesh! “The life [you] live in the flesh” is not some aimless, hopeless, joyless path of destruction. Instead, you live “by faith in the Son of God” (v. 20).
You have a new narrative! You were born and when you found Christ, born again, and your life then connected with the cross-work of Christ, 2,000 years ago. He died, you died, He rose, you rose! Now you live with a new heart, energized by your focus on the Son! He gives you meaning, purpose, and life! Paul knew the personal tender mercies of Christ. His narrative is ours. This is the One, “who loved [you] and gave himself for [you]” (v. 20).
Never underestimate the intimate nature of what Christ gave you at the cross. What did he give you? Jesus Christ gave you himself! Again, Martin Luther commenting on justification from Psalm 117:
Particularly when you hear an immature and unripe saint trumpet that he knows very well that we must be saved by the grace of God, without our own works, and then pretend that this is a snap for him, well, then have no doubt that he has no idea of what he is talking about and probably will never find out. For this is not an art that can be completely learned or of which anyone could boast that he is a master. It is an art that will always have us as pupils while it remains the master. And all those who do understand and practice it do not boast that that can do everything. On the contrary, they sense it like a wonderful taste or odor that they greatly desire and pursue; and they are amazed that they cannot grasp it or comprehend it as they would like. They hunger, thirst, and yearn for it more and more; and they never tire of hearing about or dealing with it, just as St. Paul himself confessed that he has not yet obtained it (Phil. 3:12). And in Matt. 5:6 Christ calls those blessed who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Being justified by faith in Christ gets boring when we forget the sin from which we were rescued from! We have to always return to grace. You have the Holy Spirit empowering you. You have an intimate relationship with Christ who “lives in you” – fellowships with you!
5. Faith alone means you stand in grace (v. 21)
Paul ends with sanctified logic! He’s saying he doesn’t “nullify” or “reject” “the grace of God” (v. 21). How does Paul have this kind of assurance? Simply, he’s not trying to achieve righteousness “through the law” (v. 21). How does he confirm this? Simply by stating that he knows the Savior “died” on the cross. And this had a purpose.
There are a lot of people who struggle with the assurance of their salvation.
The extreme I just addressed above are those who presume they are saved because they reject being saved by “works.” Having good Logic is never enough to save!
At the same time, when you can search you heart and acknowledge that your only hope is the “righteousness of Christ” – what he achieved for you at Calvary then you know where you stand. You stand in Grace! (Rom. 5:1)
Ask yourself, “Am I trusting in anything but Christ’s death and resurrection alone for salvation?”
Am I clear that I cannot do anything to make myself right before a holy God?
Have I confessed myself a sinner in need to forgiveness and grace?
If your answer is yes, then you can know where you stand. If your answer is no, then you must turn to Christ today!