The doctrine of justification by faith alone has been considered the focal point of Protestant theology. We see this doctrine coming onto the scene in force during the Reformation in Europe with a monk in Germany named Martin Luther, who is known for his view of indulgences, the preeminence of the Scriptures, and his emphasis on faith alone as the means of justification to name a few. His journey seemed to begin with his 95 theses. These set off a firestorm in Europe and lead Luther to peel back the church’s teachings, which would eventually lead to the re-discovery of the Biblical teaching of justification by faith alone. Two hundred years later, the doctrine of justification was espoused by the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith which was the confession of at least some Particular Baptists in England (although Luther may not have taken it to our confessional conclusion). Chapter 11 is rich with doctrinal truth, and as we will see, the doctrine is biblical and core to the Christian faith; ergo, we must guard it in our churches.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17 (NKJV)
In verse 15, Paul says he is ready to preach the Gospel to the church at Rome, which he had already expounded upon in a general sense in verses 1-6. Then in verse 16, he begins to expound on what the Gospel is in more detail. Paul is eager to bring the Gospel to those in Rome to remind the church of its content. He begins by saying he is not ashamed of this Gospel that God has given him. Remember, the message of the death of Christ was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23) to the Jews. Even with these things, Paul remains firm because the Gospel is the means ordained to save sinners. This verse in Romans 1 is a good reminder to us not to be ashamed of what the Lord has entrusted to His church. The church is to take the Gospel to the world (Matthew 28:16-20) and not shy away from its proclamation. We are to walk in a way that shows we are not ashamed of the truth of God. This does not mean that we must have the Gospel on our lips in every sentence or word we speak. Still, it does mean that we should be willing to take up our cross and die to ourselves for Christ to be ready to answer for anybody who asks about the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). Paul then goes on to say that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. The emphasis here is on God’s work and not ours. This is critical to keep in mind. Man’s works and self-righteousness had no place in Paul’s thinking. The Gospel works mightily as the power of God through the Holy Spirit. We see this back in John chapter 3, where Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about what it means to be born again. He says to him that the wind blows wherever it wishes, meaning that the Spirit of God works however he pleases. This is used in the discussion of salvation. He applies the Gospel to our hearts. We, as fallen human beings though tend to look for power from God in other things.
In Luther’s time, relics were a way that people would look for God’s power. The Catholic church made a show of displaying these relics of alleged authenticity, claiming they had supernatural power. If only we could hold a piece of the cross of Christ, or see milk from Mary’s breast, or the beard of John the Baptist, we would behold God’s power. Luther commented on this where he said,
“There sits that decoy duck in Rome with his bag of tricks, luring to himself the whole world with its money and goods, and all the while anybody can go to baptism, the sacrament, and the preaching desk. But the people say, “What, baptism? The Lord’s Supper? God’s Word? Joseph’s britches – that’s what does it!”
MARTIN LUTHER, FROM A SERMON GIVEN FEBRUARY 15, 1546
Luther’s point was that people looked for God’s power in other things rather than in God’s ordained means. God does not need those things to show His power. He brings His salvific power to His people through His Gospel. God was the author of this Gospel, and nothing could stand in its way when applied to the heart of a sinner. This is a work that is foreign to us and does not originate in us through our volition or otherwise. Finally, in verse 17, we come to one of the most well-known phrases in all the book of Romans. Paul is now unpacking the content of the Gospel. He is now transitioning into his lengthy exposition in Romans on what this Gospel is and what it means for us. What is revealed in the Gospel according to Paul? The righteousness of God. What is this righteousness? This is the righteousness that is imputed to our account. It is the righteousness of another. And how is the righteousness revealed? From faith to faith. This is the sole instrument that brings this righteousness to us. This righteousness gives us right standing before God we have broken His holy law. Our spiritual condition is bleak.
After Paul rebukes the Jews about their hypocrisy related to the law in Romans chapter 2, he transitions toward man’s universal sinfulness in Romans 3:9-20. He paints a grim picture of what our condition is before God in that we cannot do what is pleasing to God due to our sinful state. There is no righteousness within us and, therefore, no spiritual life. We are, in fact, “dead” apart from being raised with Christ (Ephesians 2:1-9). But he does not leave us to ourselves. In verse 21 of Romans 3, he makes clear God’s righteousness is revealed separately from the law. This means that God is the one who is working on our behalf. Righteousness does not have to be obtained by the keeping of God’s law. It is given apart from it as a gift to the elect. He grants the faith to believe in Christ (Philippians 1:29) and provides the righteousness to be made right with Him. Through this faith, we are counted as having kept His law perfectly because of Christ's life. Christ's obedience to the law is called his "active" and "passive" obedience. Active, being his keeping of the law perfecting on our behalf during His life and passive through his death. Both satisfied the demands of the law. Since the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and sin is the violation of God’s holy law (1 John 3:4), a human being must fulfil it on our behalf to see God. Since no man can see God and live (Exodus 33:20) and be in the presence of the thrice holy God without sin being dealt with (Isaiah 6:1-7), God could not let sin be passed by without His justice being satisfied (Romans 3:25-26). The language Paul uses must be considered “forensic” in nature as it relates to our justification. We stand condemned because of sin, but God has provided the way of being considered righteous. This is not an infusion of righteousness as the Catholic church taught but an imputation of righteousness to our account. We are considered to be that which we by nature are not: guiltless ergo able to stand before God’s tribunal without fear of condemnation (Romans 8:1).
We must guard this doctrine in our churches today. Any way that creeps into the church that undermines the righteousness of Christ and God’s monergistic work in our justification must be rejected as heretical. Once that doctrine is tinkered with, the Gospel has changed. And if another Gospel is preached wilfully, “…let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:8 (NKJV). The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith took careful note of the doctrine of justification. The church should also take note. As Paul noted to the pastor Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” (NKJV)
Wednesday 7th July 2021